Monthly Archives: October 2014

Carb My Enthusiasm

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Scan the health news and you’ll find reams of frightening headlines about “Bad Carbs,” “Are Carbs Evil?” and “Carbs to Avoid.” (Try swapping out the word “carbs” for “men,” it’s hilarious!) Really though, extreme low-carb diets such as Atkins promote an unbalanced and ultimately unsatisfying diet, which is why most people cannot maintain the regime long-term (or, in the case of my sister, one afternoon. As she says, “One day without a bagel is one too many.”).

Regardless of your dietary stance on carbohydrates, you must admit that it just doesn’t make sense to demonize them in their natural form, right?  I am tired of people giving carbohydrates in general a bad rap when there is a huge, critical difference between natural and processed carbs. Carbohydrates — our body’s main source of energy — should make up about 50% of our diet, along with protein and fat. Further, carbs are just satisfying and delicious, comfort food at its best.

Simple, refined, complex. No, I’m not describing my aesthetic sense (but thank you!), these are the three types of carbohydrates. Every once in awhile it’s a good to refresh our memories about which to avoid and which to consume with reckless abandon. So let’s do this!

Simple: This refers mainly to sugars –lactose, glucose, fructose–which are found in both natural and processed foods. I know you’re going to throw the “my-body-can’t-tell-the-difference-between-gummy-bears-and-bananas” defence at me, and yes, it’s true that our bodies process sugars in a particular way, but there are many other good things in whole fruits as well, like fiber and vitamin C. Perhaps you can buy gummy bears infused with fiber and vitamin C. Carry on, then! 😉

Refined: White bread/rice/pasta, snack and processed foods, most breakfast cereals, soda and other sugary beverages. Clearly I’m going to head straight to the closest baguette at the Farmer’s Market this weekend and bury my face in it, so everything in moderation. I’ve been trying to swap out white for brown rice, but nothing creates quite the same level of dissonance with my 6 year old as dishing her up a hearty helping of brown rice, so I have to plan carefully and be mentally fortified. Even buying whole grain bread instead of highly processed (check out the ingredients to make sure it’s truly whole grains and no added sugars or unidentifiables) is a great place to start realigning your diet.

Complex: And the winner is. . ! Here’s where you need to be hanging out, noshing on whole grains, unadulterated fruits and nuts, and starchy beans and vegetables. Pretty much any complete plant-based food falls into this category and is on the menu, friends. There is so. much. variety!  Have you tried an avocado (they just call them avos here, isn’t that adorbs?), tomato and basil sandwich on whole grain toast drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, perhaps with a side of baked sweet potato? Or how about a butternut squash and spinach Indian curry over brown rice, millet, or quinoa? ( It probably goes without saying that it’s best to eat your complex carbs sans the 1/2 cup of sour cream or thick slab of butter you’re staring at, but feel free to accessorize.)

However you’re incorporating more complex carbs into your diet, your body will thank you for it. Here’s a simple  — I mean easy -recipe loaded with complexity.

Sweet Potato and Spinach Saag (modified from Veganomicon)

  • 3-4 yams or sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped, then roasted at 400 degrees (on a lightly greased cookie sheet) for about 20 minutes. Feel free to replace with squash or pumpkin if you’re feeling all Thanksgiving-ish.
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 T peanut oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 t. garam masala (you can find this in most well-stocked grocery aisles because you’re so resourceful and fancy!)
  • 1/4 t. cinnamon
  • 1/2 t salt
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 chunk of fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 bunches fresh spinach, washed and chopped
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (optional)
  • juice of 1/2 lemon or lime

1) While your sweet potatoes are cooling, sauté the onion in peanut oil for about 5 minutes, until softened; add garlic and spices (except ginger), stirring over low heat for another 1-2 minutes.

2) Next, add the potatoes and grate ginger directly into the pan, stirring to heat through, then pour in water (adding more if it’s too thick).

3) Finally, throw in the spinach in two or three batches, making sure each is thoroughly mixed in.

4) Remove from heat, squeezing in lime or lemon juice and adjusting seasoning. Serve with a complex grain of your choice and top with chopped peanuts and green onions, tomatoes, or some toasted pumpkin seeds if you’re taking the fall theme to the extreme.  (Note: Image is from Pinterest as my picture was unappetizing. Avert your eyes from the white rice!)

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All This Writing is Making Me Hungry

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I have good news, and bad news. The good news first, of course: I am truly enjoying my doctoral research program (I’m studying changing foodways in the Cook Islands), although there have already been (inevitably) a few overwhelming moments. The bad news? I want to eat all. the. pancake-flippin’. time. Much of my days are spent reading and writing about food, and though this has not resulted in cravings for tinned meats or breadfruit, it does mean I’m pondering foodstuffs whilst sitting. I’ve already gained 2 kilos, and while this isn’t in itself a serious issue, if things keep going in this direction–and I’m referring here to biscuits going in the direction of my mouth — I will have to get another part-time job to buy new clothes!  I decided instead to join the on-campus fitness center. Sliding back into graduate life with yoga pants (the kind from Athleta that have pockets so I’m like, these are totally presentable) and ponytails has felt quite natural after 15+ years and two kids. . . until, that is, I visited a cross-fit class at the gym today and realized a) I may never be able to do real jumping-jacks again (humiliating, I think I cleared 2 mm), and b) wearing glasses to this type of activity is just not acceptable (why did I think it was?). For every gruelling and bizarre exercise the instructor looked directly at me for the “alternate” option: “If you’re not sure you can leap into the air and land in a low squat repeatedly because you might keel over and traumatize us all, just jog slowly in place.” I left early (to pick up Everett, don’t judge) and kicked a barbell on my way out of the darkened, neon-lit room, emitting a Homer Simpsonesque “doh!” Tomorrow I’ll be back to riding the exercise bike for a slow 23 minutes and highlighting an article. Nerd alert. (And yes, double nerd points for writing nerd alert.)

Before my embarrassing foray into the world of cross-fit I had a turning-point meeting with my supervisors. I sent them a 12 page paper on Friday that was supposed to be about gender in the context of religion and food in the Cook Islands. It was, technically, but –and this is what they each pointed out to me — I seem to always return to a more modern narrative of health and nutrition, asking questions, for example, about how the Cooks came to be, along with Nauru and Micronesia, one of the most obese nations in the world? A modern problem with roots in the period I’m researching, yes, but how much of this transition from dependence on traditional to imported foods can be tied to missionaries? By narrowing my view was I leaving out potentially excellent sources? (The other option was that my paper made zero sense.)

“What kind of historian do you want to be — a historian of religion, of food, or the Pacific?” “Definitely food. And the Pacific.”  So there we are, and my project has broadened to looking at many influences on changing foodways, not just religion. Don’t worry, missionaries will still figure prominently in my work — how could I leave out Seventh-day Adventists telling Cook Islanders they had to abandon pork, shellfish and kava, all important ceremonial foods, in order to join the church? — but I will be exploring other influences as well.

Breadfruit and Taro, two traditional Pacific Island foods