In the New Year, I have been attempting to sidestep the ringing telephone at work. It was just a matter of time before my luck would run out and sure enough, Tuesday was the day. Picking up the phone, I wondered how deep into the gluten free waters I would be treading. Instead, I found myself swimming against a totally different allergen tide.
Not quite understanding the question, I asked Anxious Mom to repeat herself, which she did emphasizing the word sunflower. “Do you use sunflowers in the bakery?”
Frantically combing my brain, attempting to visualize what might be peppered with sunflowers- blooms or seeds, my immediate response was, “I don’t believe so.” To avoid confusion, I added my traditional disclaimer; “If we’re talking about an allergy, we are an open kitchen, using shared equipment and we do use nuts, but no peanuts. We are peanut free.” I took a breath, debating whether or not to hand the phone off to an unsuspecting barista.
It is early in the morning and caught off guard, I’m trying to envision our giant Hobart mixers, bowls fitted with paddle attachments, filled to the brim with sunflowers. Seeds and petals are gloriously strewn across the checkerboard linoleum, a perfect color palate of brown and yellow underfoot.
“I’m new to this, “Anxious Mom interrupts my daydream. Taking a long sip of lukewarm latte I’m dying to say, “I’m new to this one, too” but I don’t.
“What is it exactly you are allergic to?" I ask. “Sunflower seeds? Vitamin D? I’m not quite following…”
Mom interrupts me, in a not-so-subtle, not-quite-but-almost-patronizing tone. “Sunflower lecithin” she states. “Possibly. It’s not definitive, but very possibly.”
“I see.” I’m lying. “Is there something I can help you with? Something specific?”
“If I wanted to order a cake…” Anxious Mom trails off. Hating to do it, I cut to the chase.
“Would you like to order a cake?”
“Do you use sunflower lecithin?”
“Not to my knowledge.” It is quite possible I missed the Know Your Sunflower Lecithin Ingredients lecture, but I needn’t worry. There’s an opportunity here to learn more than I ever wanted to know.
Anxious Mom continues her spiel. “Soy lecithin doesn’t taste good; have you ever tasted it? Apparently some places use sunflower lecithin instead of soy. And if my daughter has a sensitivity to sunflower lecithin…” I’m pondering both the taste appeal of one lecithin over another and the use of the phrase ‘some places.’ I’m mildly offended but primarily losing interest.
The mention of lecithin propels me back to the early 1970s and a book written by nutritionist Adelle Davis, Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit. Somewhere in that book is the mention of lecithin. I know this because my mother had a copy of Adelle’s reference guide within easy reach above her desk in the kitchen. Soon after that book arrived, my mother began toting home mysterious looking vitamin bottles in brown paper bags from what we called, the Health Food Store. Lecithin was among these, along with twist-tied bags of wheat germ and Tiger’s Milk Peanut Butter Carob bars. My nose twitches just thinking about the musty smell of that store and the macramé planters hanging in the smoky windows. My memories are of no use to Anxious Mom.
We agree that if a birthday cake is on the horizon for daughter with potential but non-definitive Sunflower Lecithin Compromise Syndrome, we will revisit the options. By the way, according to the calendar staring me in the face we are booked for this weekend. I ring off hoping someone else answers the phone when Mom calls back.
This weekend, festivities kick off in celebration of Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rooster. From a pie perspective, this holiday is more about rice flour cakes, almond cookies, egg custard tarts and eight treasure puddings. There have been various dessert recipes encouraging creative use of wonton wrappers, but the idea of apple pie masquerading as a wonton or a spring roll simply doesn’t call to me. A feeble attempt to locate kumquats (a personal favorite) from the local Whole Foods proves futile. What I really want to do is find a dessert that incorporates the huge wedge of marble halvah that I recently smuggled home from Toronto.
Later that afternoon, seeking yet not finding inspiration, I peer into my home freezer hoping for a sign. On first glance there is none. From behind a bag of frozen corn, a previously opened half-filled box of phyllo dough is eyeing me. The phyllo is probably best served as a savory component, but these are desperate dessert times and I don’t want to go out again. Setting the box of phyllo on the kitchen counter, I wait for it to come to room temperature. This gives me plenty of time to scan the list of ingredients. Good news in the Year of the Rooster! This box of phyllo dough is Sunflower Lecithin free.
One of the perks of being an 8th grader in 1971 at the Adamsville Junior High School was the much anticipated field trip to Washington, D.C.. Sleepily waving goodbye from Buick wood-paneled station wagons or Ford Mustangs, our parents dropped us at school at an ungodly hour. Elbowing each other to be first aboard the chartered buses, the kids looking for trouble sat in the rear of the bus; those hoping to avoid nausea on the four hour journey sat in the front.
To be honest, a good part of the trip has faded over time but several memories ring clear. One of the highlights of the trip centered around the snacks consumed enroute to our destination; rainbow Charms and Chiclets, tooth achingly sweet Pixy Stix and Sweet Tarts, Tootsie Pops and Tootsie Pop Drops. Some crunched their way towards the Nation’s Capital leaving a trail of Frito’s, Ruffles and Rold Gold Pretzels. One of the chaperones was my 8th grade Social Studies teacher, Mrs. Mangione. Well liked among faculty and too-cool-for-school students, Mrs. Mangione was known and respected as a diminutive walking Encyclopedia Britannica.
This particular field trip was historical on many levels; not merely in stories echoed from a city set against imposing monuments, but from the contemporary history unfolding on the streets of Washington. Protests against the Vietnam War earmarked that trip, making our parents and teachers uneasy, precluding our tour of the White House. We combed the city at a whirlwind pace, required to board those pine-freshened buses before sundown. With the Washington Capitol centered prominently in the background, our large group posed for a panoramic black and white photo. Attired in our best 1970s ensembles, girls wore daring mini skirts or jumpers, topping them off with wet-look raincoats or fringed ponchos. Those with long hair parted it severely down the middle, some with short dos (who sat in the front of the bus) parted it on the side. The boys sported short-sleeved button down shirts with trousers and dress shoes; in fact many wore sport coats. Our signed permission slips came with the understanding that dungarees were not permitted on this trip.
Returning to our suburban classrooms, we were instructed to write a report on an event that made the trip memorable. Combing the musty card catalogue in the library, I discovered a White House cookbook detailing favorite Presidential recipes. Mrs. Mangione suggested I look beyond Martha’s fruitcake, Dolley’s gingerbread and Mamie’s fudge. She may have been a fine educator but from that point on, I thought of Mrs. Mangione as somewhat of a killjoy.
What would my 8th grade Social Studies teacher have thought of the ice cream homage to our 44th President? A lover of all things sweet, no doubt she would have approved of Ben and Jerry’s ‘inspirational blend of amber waves of buttery ice cream with roasted non-partisan pecans’ available in pint sized containers. A pint sized gal herself, I’m sure Mrs. Mangione, spoon in hand would have stood in front of her students exclaiming, “Yes, Pecan.”
As the last class of a long school day, my focus in Social Studies drifted from blackboard to window to slow moving clock on the wall. The end of the school year brought several surprises. One was the A- I received as a final grade from Mrs. Mangione. The other was a casual inscription scrawled on the inside cover of my blue and white 1971 Adamsonian yearbook. Written in the tiniest blue Bic pen cursive were the words, “Remember the back of the bus on the Wash. trip.” It’s signed Bob C.
If pressed, it’s possible I can rattle off a list of some of the desserts favored by the First Ladies, but for the life of me, I can’t tell you who Bob C. is.
Uh-oh. The Whole30 Boat has set sail without me. It appears I am the only woman within earshot who hasn’t resolved to follow an entire month of clean eating, who hasn’t given up sugar or caffeine or carbs. The bestselling book promoting this approach to resetting my metabolism, tells me it’s not a hard approach to eating. Additionally, the exhaustive lists of what not to eat are supposedly for my own good. I would suspect that in the interest of those who work with or live with me, it’s a far better thing to simply leave me in my little gluten-filled, caffeinated, sweetened world.
It seems the biggest stumbling block to sustaining any extreme food regimen ad infinitum is the fact that hardcore unbalanced eating is simply unrealistic. Particularly a program that assures me that a life without popcorn is in my very best interest. Clearly the folks at Whole30 don’t know yours truly.
It is uncertain when my affection for handfuls of salted kernels (without butter mind you, it’s never been about the butter) crossed the line from after school snack to full blown dependency. There have been bouts of intake moderation, cold turkey abstinence, and a recent small but sincere family intervention. The fact remains that I cannot seem to sever my relationship with popcorn.
My personal problem with popcorn may have started casually, unintentionally, but then I carted the problem off to college with me. Attired in all of its avocado green and glass-topped glory, my Westbend popcorn popper was as critical to my college success as the weighty typewriter with the correct-o-type ribbon I used to compose term papers.
Popcorn seemed much healthier than most other salted snack foods and in the early days, I only popped my own. When microwave popcorn was introduced, I faltered, unable to navigate the intricacies of kernels suspended in an airtight bag. There were more near misses than hits, too many smoke alarm encounters to make this method compatible with my need for the crunch. I moved on, forging a relationship with Snyder’s of Hanover who were conveniently situated a stone’s throw from Philadelphia and available at every retail food turn.
Following a dental mishap caused by an over baked pretzel, I returned to a kinder, gentler salted snack. Conveniently, this was just about the time that Trader Joe’s was popping up on the east coast. It also coincided with a stressful pastry chef job that was slowly sucking the life out of me. Enter the cheesy puff.
Light and airy, salty with just the slightest suggestion of cheese, Trader Joe’s was more than happy to fill my snack food void. There was an entire aisle devoted to all things crunchy, cello bags puffed up, seamlessly floating from shelf to shopping cart. Disinterested in anything sweet or sassy or herby, I became solely devoted to the White Cheddar Corn Puffs. Therein lies the rub.
At what point does one classify a food staple as a food problem? When that food is taken away, that’s when. Sequestered in New York’s Hudson Valley a few summers back posed a serious problem. Having torn open and consumed one bag during the car ride to Rensselaerville, I faced four long weeks sans Cheesy Puffs. With nary a Trader Joe’s in proximity to the upstate hamlet, it was a tough withdrawal to endure. Worthy dare I admit, of a segment featured on A&E’s Intervention.
I am not alone. Recently, a casual study amongst women in the food industry uncovered the revelation that popcorn (and wine, but that’s another story) is a popular food staple amongst women who toil in professional kitchens.
Just this week, a familial intervention offered renewed clarity, celebrating my problem in a happy marriage of reverse psychology and cheesy puff ingenuity. A six course tasting menu of small plates echoed recent travels, highlighting ingredients gathered from provincial farm markets, conjuring memories of globe trotting meals. Tucked within each dish was a recurring ingredient; the humble Cheesy Puff had been miraculously transformed into hearty appetizers, velvety sauces and most miraculously, a killer dessert. Who says salted caramel ice cream doesn’t benefit from a salty, ever-so-slightly cheese punctuated addition? The combination of crunch against cool was brilliant. Thanks, Alicia. To Master/Master and Blondilocks who sautéed, sauced, plated and didn’t set the house ablaze during the dessert course, four stars.
Never have popcorn demons been embraced in such exquisite fashion. With familial support, and a Trader Joe’s within running distance, I am cautiously optimistic that my little problem can be moderated in the New Year. One handful at a time.
Neither ice, nor snow nor unplowed road deters us from reaching the Peace Bridge. Despite the fact that signage indicates our lane is indeed Oeuvre, it feels more Fermé. Tail lights in the distance glow red against the late afternoon dusk. With passports in hand, we are ready to play well our parts. Forty five minutes later, we are summoned. Opting to leave behind the pepper spray, mace, firearms and alcohol, Mr. Customs Official allows us entry.
The Queen Elizabeth Way is riddled with heavy traffic, flanked by high-rise condominiums on either side of the highway. In the distance, Lake Ontario shivers beneath evening skies spitting freezing rain.
It has been more than 30 years since my last visit to Canada’s largest city. I vividly recall tearing myself away from the O’Keefe Center between performances of Peter Pan in order to comb the city for a very specific item. Trivial Pursuit had just been introduced in the states and I was an able-bodied board game runner. My personal best post matinee shopping dash culminated with a bag doubled for strength, filled with four weighty board games. Securing them from the Eaton Centre which still stands tall today, was no easy feat. I am overjoyed to learn that The Hudson Bay flagship store remains steadfast within the retail complex, complete with an entire department dedicated to its signature wool striped blankets. Shivering beneath an oversized houndstooth scarf, my frozen self is warmed by this thought. It also occurs to me that the game pieces from Trivial Pursuit were referred to as pieces of pie. Foreshadowing? Perhaps.
One couldn’t secure a more enthusiastic tour guide for our New Year’s Rockin’ Eve weekend than Sibling Sister Formerly of Seattle, Currently of Toronto. We embrace all modes of public transportation in our quest for some of the finest eats the city has to offer.
On Saturday morning, we pause to fortify ourselves with stellar caffeine from Rooster coffee. A finely spiced molasses ginger crinkle provides personal sustenance should I grow faint with hunger during our food tour. I needn’t have worried; it soon becomes evident why National Geographic has named Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market as the world’s best food market.
Sibling Sister has briefed us on many of the highlights; Peameal bacon (lean boneless pork loin, trimmed, cured and dredged in cornmeal), crusty bagels from St. Urbain’s brick ovens, silken Portuguese custard tarts, baskets of top-knotted brioche. I pause by Kozliks Canadian mustards where an earnest merchant slices warm puff pastry, oozing gruyere cheese, spiked with the perfect heat of spicy mustard. Repeated sampling of that puff pastry could have become my life’s work had I not been distracted by the promise of maple glazed donuts overfilled with cream.
We traverse the market like pack mules, tucking parcels of meats and cheeses wrapped in white butcher paper into groaning canvas totes.. The market sprawls over two levels then extends to a separate building housing organic produce. Selecting a crisp/sweet Ida Red apple as a palate cleanser, we continue on to the Kensington Market, located in the city’s Chinatown district.
Unlike the St. Lawrence Market which is housed in one building, Kensington is an outdoor market, located in one of the city’s older districts. During the early twentieth century, the area was referred to as the ‘Jewish Market,’ but today embraces multi-cultural entrepreneurs and retailers.
Blackbird Baking Company provides us with warm, crusty baguettes and a lemon tart cloaked in burnt sugar. We sample too many cheeses at Global Cheese and ask for a healthy slice of marble halvah in case we find ourselves hungry sometime between 4 pm and the New Year. Our food odyssey pauses at Wanda’s Pie In the Sky before we rest our weary selves at the perfectly hip, gorgeously appointed Bar Raval. Retreating to Sibling Sister’s hi-rise digs, we cover her glass-top coffee table from end to end with our market provisions. The CN Tower stands just outside, illuminated in its very best red and white.
Perfectly sated with our market comestibles and perhaps just the slightest bit of bubbly, we don our serious parkas and warmest gloves. New Year’s Eve concludes in front of City Hall with a humble display of fireworks. As the gridlocked crowd disperses moving a little too close for comfort, we bob and weave directly across the street from The Hudson Bay Company.
It’s probably a good thing I opted to forego the purchase of a Hudson Bay Blanket. I already have plenty to declare as we clear customs on Monday; thousands and thousands of calories.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm