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Slow Food

Food...Glorious Food!

Food…Glorious Food!

I’ve blogged before about my attempt to focus on food more as “fuel” than “fun”. That’s a challenge for a foodie.

Especially one who really doesn’t consider cooking a strength.

I will always eat healthfully. And whenever possible, make my family do the same. I’ve even mastered a muffin that’s a combination of quinoa, rice flour, flax seed, chia seeds, apples, bananas, honey – sometimes even a teaspoon of kelp! I promise, it’s edible.

But baking has never been a challenge for me. Cooking dinner has. Hard to do when you are delivering the news at 5, 6 and 10pm! Just doing the grocery shopping and getting up at the crack of dawn to pack school lunches was a challenge.

So, learning to cook a proper dinner was one of my big ‘to-dos’ when we moved to New Zealand: learn to cook – properly – for my family. Leaving wiggle room to allow for Indian take-away, obviously.

 

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Take-away Indian food = favorite emergency meal

 

One of my new-found friends shared my goal with her daughter, who apparently responded with total confusion. She asked, with a worried frown, “How has she managed to raise a family, if she doesn’t know how to cook?”.

Fair question. One that needs a little cultural context.

I just returned from a visit to the US, where I went shopping at Costco. For my American friends, who are familiar with the concept, bear with me for a minute, as I explain the jaw-dropping range of  gourmet-style pre-prepared meals you can buy. Everything from fresh chicken and pasta salad to frozen but fabulous crab cakes, with plenty of ethnic diversity. You really don’t ever have to cook again, with a place like that in the neighbourhood. If you don’t mind a few preservatives, or usually “nuking” your meals, as some call cooking them in the microwave oven.

Costco and stores like it, as well as gourmet groceries, fill a need in American society today: to provide the second-best thing to homemade food for busy families. The problem is, many American families would now be lost without them.

Before I left the US (and my broadcasting career), I did a story on a family who hired a Happiness Expert, named Christine Carter, to rescue them. So stretched with school and work and their kids’ wildly demanding sports schedules, they ate nothing but microwaved meals. And rarely ever together.

Her RX? Simple: plan a family meal at least once a week. She started by getting them to clear the dining room table that had been lost for years under piles of paperwork. The parents were in the habit of feeding the kids as they sat on barstools. They just stood and snacked. With Christine’s guidance, the family worked together to carve out windows of opportunity on the calendar so they could plan, shop, cook and finally, commune – together at the family table.

 

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Fresh Food for the family = Happiness

 

Sounds far-fetched? Maybe this family was an extreme example?

Well, consider this: a Kiwi friend of mine is now living in the States – just for a year. She wrote to me, describing how overwhelmed she felt. The kids can’t take public transport to their respective sports, so she has to drive them all over the city, then dash home in time for them to do their hours of required homework.  She struggles to find time to stop at the store and buy the ingredients, let alone cook a family dinner – something she took for granted living here.

She is counting the days until they come home. Where the pressure isn’t so palpable that it eats away at childhood and prevents families from simply spending time with one another.

In New Zealand, many of my friends still do “the baking for the week” on Sunday afternoons. I’d only heard of that on  black and white television programs.

Hopefully this explains how and why I fed my family for more than a decade on a few simple recipes and a Costco membership.

But it didn’t make me happy. I wanted to do better.

When I moved, I made learning to cook a priority. I started by pulling recipes from local magazines and then gathering a few from my new friends. I learned to use local specialties, with a twist – like couscous lamb burgers! But I still shied away from anything that required more than 3 or 4 instructions.

 

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That’s when some Kiwi ‘Mums’ shared their secret – a service that changed my life: “My Food Bag“. Each week, fresh, locally sourced groceries arrive at my door, complete with recipes for the ingredients! No planning, no stressing –  just cooking! (And sometimes lots of chopping…)

Now, I have no choice but to make what they provide.  I also don’t take the blame if my kids don’t like the recipe. It was provided, not chosen. Sometimes they’ll even help me make the fun stuff. They have, by the way, discovered that they like more than they realize. And I no longer flinch at the number of steps required. We’ve broadened our minds as well as our palates.

 

Making Rice Wraps for the first time...

Making Rice Wraps for the first time…

 

I’ve made things I never would have dared to try on my own:  duck, dumplings, and Vietnamese rice wraps among them. I consider it my culinary crash-course – learning  what spices work with which foods, and how to trim meat and all these things that take years to learn, preferably as you grow up watching your mother cook in the kitchen.

My mother worked. We lived on crock-pot meals most of the time.

I now have a library of preferred meals and feel confident enough to close the book and try my own ideas. When they turn out tasting great, it’s funny how rewarding it feels – like it’s a big accomplishment.

Wasn’t getting women out of the kitchen considered a real advancement less than a hundred years ago?

After World War II,  as my Dad tells me, Madison Avenue started to market tv dinners and all kinds of canned foods as fast and convenient. It was a way to repurpose production lines that no longer needed to provide C-rations for troops, or so he says. Whatever the initial motivation, the marketing worked. Freeing housewives from the drudgery of daily meal preparation offered what the invention of the washing machine once did –  more time and opportunity to use our creative energy in other areas.

This ready-made trend didn’t take root just in the United States. It swept the world. But we paid a price for convenience.

Today we see the backlash: slow-food movements and events popping up all over the world, and kitchen gardens back in vogue. Even France fell victim. There, they’ve now introduced a symbol that restaurants display to prove that they home-cook meals and don’t just microwave pre-produced selections. Stunning.

Yet, some societies never really strayed too far from convention. On a recent family trip to Vietnam, we saw fresh produce turned into works of art. The wildly popular ‘street’ food’ that we’d heard so much about was made with freshly harvested ingredients. Even what’s flogged to tourists at the famous Floating Villages is a mix of the expected processed and packaged – alongside fresh produce.

 

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Fresh produce as art in Vietnam

 

The Vietnamese also practice what I’d call extreme gardening: every green patch that can be seized for cultivation, is. Even in the cities, where the pace of life today is as fast as anywhere else in the western world, people snap up fresh greens from sellers on sidewalks with baskets hanging from a single stick balanced across their shoulders. Buyers zoom up on their motorbikes, and zip off with bundles of green leaves and shoots sticking out from the back of their seats. Heading home to cook them, albeit often with prepackaged noodles.

Apparently there is a way to balance our busy modern lives with traditional rituals that nourish us. For some us, it requires taking a step backward to re-learn (or learn for the first time) the skills and knowledge required.

So, yes, this health-conscious foodie has finally learned to cook after moving to New Zealand.  While there are plenty of fast food restaurants and frozen meat pies and patties at supermarket freezer sections, it seems the Kiwi culture hasn’t gone too far down the pre-prepared path. So there aren’t as many steps backward needed.

As I’ve said before, you really could call this the land of milk and honey – as those are two of the more famous Kiwi exports and kitchen staples.

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It’s also a land where families really do still sit down to enjoy home-cooked meals, instead of waiting for the ding on the microwave to shuffle their stools closer to the kitchen counter.

 

 

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24 Jul 2012, by

Speed Demon

Last Day on Set - Exhausted, but Happy!

Last Day on Set – Exhausted but Happy! (photo by Ben Wong)

Thirty second stories, five second countdowns, the constant push to go live now, now, now…don’t dare trip on the way to the news set!  For twenty years, my life in tv news was dictated by increasingly short deadlines and a rush to be first.  When my mother in law once visited me, she observed a working mother with a wildly varying schedule and two young children at home, and concluded I ran around all the time with my adrenal glands wide open.  No wonder.  My children rarely saw me sit.  Some found it exhausting just to listen to my schedule.

Every few years, I had to remind myself just to stop and breathe while I was work.  All the running around in tightly altered suits and heels, trying to be and look perfect meant I literally was only taking shallow breaths, as if I were hyperventilating.  Even knowing that, it was a struggle to “waste” the time it took to allow myself a few deep breaths – unless I was multitasking.

Over the years I found I couldn’t keep up that pace.  I fell ill time after time. By the last few years I was on the job, I was so burned out that much of my time away from the office was spent simply trying to keep it together: get enough sleep, exercise and good nutrition just stay healthy and slim, in order to keep on working.   It was an unrewarding cycle for everyone. My doctor finally made me sit up and take notice.  And fate gave me a chance to change.

I’ve said this in different ways before.  There’s a reason I’m saying it again.  Apparently, it needs to be repeated…at least to me.

I’ve written about my reasons for moving to New Zealand…to slow down and reprioritize. But this move’s also allowed me, for the first time, to develop parts of myself and my life that were neglected.  Though I’ve made progress toward those goals, I’ve also learned how easy it is to fall back into step with a twenty year pattern.  I’ve signed on for more than I anticipated.

Volunteering at school and in the community, performing with a chorale, training for that walk I mentioned in my most recent blog, cooking for friends and family, and playing hostess.  All good things, all rewarding.  But when my mother left after her first visit here, she observed that I was still in a hurry most of the time.  Stressing. Only now, it was voluntary.

Not one to do exactly what my mother tells me (at least immediately)  it took some other hints before I succumbed: two dumb mistakes, only attributable to not paying close enough attention as I sped-read through texts and emails.  It was when I was trying to explain and apologize for these missteps that I finally took my mother’s words to heart, took a deep breath and tried again.

Today, I got up early to make my children’s lunches. My younger son and I covered his spelling words and my older son and I coordinated his after-school schedule. When they left to catch their respective buses, I sat down to read.  Eight years after it was published, and after promising to do so in an earlier blog, I’ve finally started to read a book called “In Praise of Slow” by Carl Honore´.  It’s about a growing movement.  Honore´ likely was one of the first to disseminate the philosophy behind “Slow Food” to a worldwide audience.  The California town in which I lived (Davis) has held “Slow Food Village Feasts” for years in a public park.  I never had time to attend.

After my reading, I took a slow walk in the rain to an exercise class.  Having fought my way back from a bad few weeks of illness, (yes that was another sign) I didn’t push.  And on the way back home (all uphill) I paused to read the signs identifying all the plants blooming in the Botanic Garden: Paper Bush, Quince, Hydrangea, Magnolia.  Daffodils are everywhere and the air is fragranced.  Now I know what I am inhaling.

As I walked, I also allowed myself to do some thinking.  Mulling over a poem I’m submitting for a competition, considering a few ideas for a talk I was asked to give to a sales force and reminding myself to edit a short story I am writing to submit to an online journal.  I picked up vitamins and coffee and listened to the shopkeepers explain their many benefits and nuances.   I learned about a natural pain reliever called MSM, and a “Robusta” bean that is much like “Arabica” but of which I’d never heard.  I even pondered the idea of submitting articles on the debate over some nutritional supplements and similarities of coffee and wine tasting.

Less than six hours had passed between the time I woke up and arrived back home.  And I didn’t rush through any of it.  I spent quality time with myself and my kids.  And I was productive.  Who would have imagined?

I would love more inspiration.  Clearly I need it…at regular intervals.  Will you share some stories with me?  I may end up talking or writing about them…spreading the message that you can wean yourself off a speed addiction.  It just may take trying to stare down the speed demon…again and again and again.

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