Today the Wind Blew in Atlanta

This blog asks you to [re]consider health.  Sometimes I discuss health in terms of food, or in terms of body image, but I always try to put these things in a greater context of overall health.  So today I ask you to consider your mental health.  How’s your stress?  Do you ever look up and find that somehow your priorities have gotten completely out of whack?  In the hustle and bustle of every day life, even my best attempts to slow down and take it easy get lost in fits of road rage and prideful tantrums.

As some of you may remember, this blog was born of a project that my family started last fall.  We decided that we had worked ourselves into levels of stress and anxiety that were just ridicculous.  We felt like the world was moving too fast and we wanted off the crazy train.  For us, it meant returning to an appreciation of life that cannot be found in a grocery store line full of impatient people.  And this lead us to [re]consider the very thing that was provided to nourish us: food.

The switch from shopping at the grocery store to sustaining ourselves almost entirely on farmers market produce was breathtaking.  Instead of avoiding the vegetables we didn’t recognize, the person who picked it from his field was there to tell us everything we could have ever wanted to know.  In this way, I discovered kholrabi, among many other amazing fruits and vegetables I might never have tried!  Instead of finding myself impatiently waiting in a slow-moving line, I learned to take my time and appreciate the people around me.  Instead of spending money thoughtlessly, I entered into contracts with other families: my family’s patronage in exchange for another family’s product.  Mutual appreciation.  A handshake and a see-you-next-week that was really a mutual promise to sustain each other.

Learning to shop in this way did not just change our outlooks on food—it changed our outlooks on life.  We have learned in a very real way to appreciate the reciprocity and interconnectedness of people.  Not just because we’re supposed to, but because we see it in action.  From the food we began to branch out and [re]consider all of the other ways that our busy, fast-paced American lives have pulled us away from humanity and toward a materialistic way of life that we weren’t proud of.  We learned to slow down and appreciate a beautiful tree, a fresh breeze, or a perfect lemon.

I'm fairly certain my daughter has never heard the term "tree hugger," so when she insisted on stopping to hug her favorite tree, I couldn't resist the photo opp.

…but then winter hit.  I knew we had started our project too late in the season, but I didn’t realize just how unprepared we were for the cold months.  So we found ourselves at the grocery store more and more.  We found ourselves in more and more of a hurry.  With more an more of an entitlement (“who cares if strawberries are out of season?  I want it NOW….).  And then I got sick.  And then I started a new job that requires a frustrating commute…and the next thing I knew, I had reverted back to my high-anxiety, super hurried lifestyle.

So here I am.  I looked up a few days ago and really saw myself for the first time in months.  I truly didn’t like what I saw.  My road rage was back, for one thing.  But really, the problem was that I had forgotten to value every person around me.  I forgot to remember that they were all people like me with places to go.  I had forgotten to appreciate what I have and be humbled by the times that I didn’t have it.  I had spoken to people in ways that I was not proud of, but I had justified it and that was the worst part.  I had become so hurried and disconnected that I had developed a sense of entitlement that was shameful.  What happened to turning the other cheek?

Am I evil?  No.  Am I admitting to being the world’s biggest bitch?  No.  But I think we can all look inside ourselves and find room for improvement.  If we don’t like what we see, it doesn’t mean we are stuck like that forever—it just means that we forgot for a moment.

For me, the reminder was half the battle.  Once I realized it I had forgotten my priorities, the change was subtle but immediate.  Today as I was walking in downtown Atlanta, cars rushed by.  People rushed by.  Buildings touched a sky I almost couldn’t even see.  And I felt the wind blow.  I bet last week I wouldn’t have noticed.

No recipes today.  Instead I want to share that we recently joined two CSAs—a meat CSA and a vegetable CSA.  We are stoked!  Community Supported Agriculture is important because…well, farmers need capital and we need food.  Here’s how it works: farms will offer a certain number of “shares” to the public.  We (the public—that’s us) buy the shares.  It’s a win-win because the farmer receives our money ahead of time and isn’t scrambling to sell all of the product during the busiest time of the season, and we receive a box or basket each week with a set amount of fresh produce.  The idea is that every week we receive the same amount (typically in pounds), but what goes in the box varies from week to week according to what’s in season and what was ripe and ready for picking.

Now, in case you’re feeling intimidated by the cost of  joining a CSA but you really want to jump in, you have options!  Some farms offer a program that allows you to literally work for your food—in exchange for a few hours on the farm, your CSA membership is discounted.    If you think your kids/husband/wife/partner would never go for it, think again!  If mine did, anyone can!  I truly believe that time spent on a farm or near the source of food can be inspiring for anyone—especially for the kids.  Give it a shot.

If you think you’re even a LITTLE bit interested, now is the time to check it out!!  The farms I know are currently accepting applications for the 2012 season!  I looked it up too late and had to wait for the rest of the year to join. In fact, here are the ones that we know and support in North Georgia, for any of my local friends:

http://brayfamilyfarms.com/

http://twomulefarms.com/

http://www.jacksonlowevegetablefarm.com/Home.html

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Making the Most of a Glass Half Full…of Dirt…

Though it’s no longer my job, I realize that in some way motivating others in their fitness endeavors will always be a responsibility for me.  Even when I think I’ve created miles of distance from my time as a competitive bodybuilder, I still receive emails from people who tell me that something I’ve said has inspired them.  I still receive requests for workout ideas and diet plans.  I am happy to help, and I am glad to have a skill that can help others–whether I like it or not, people associate me with fitness, food, and health.   Why is this a responsibility and why wouldn’t I like it?  Because it’s a lot of pressure to know how much the little things we say and do can affect the people around us!  I could use this as an opportunity to say anything, and there is a lot of harm that can be done if one is ignorant of the responsibility.  I have seen far too many “trainers” and fitness gurus lead people in a very unhealthy direction simply for personal gain.  And people define health differently.  I am not a guru, and I do not define health in an aesthetic sense—so if you measure success with the scale or the mirror, then we have to talk!

I see this as an opportunity: people are listening, so I will seize this moment to bring something positive.  And that something positive is the message that fitness and health should not serve a purely aesthetic purpose!!!  Yes, looking good can make you feel good, but an appearance-oriented goal is an elusive one. First you’ll want to lose ten pounds.  Then 20.  Then you’ll want abs.  Then you’ll hate your thighs… Don’t fool yourself into believing that you’ll one day “get there” to a magical place where if you’re thin enough or fit enough your dreams will come true…because you will never find it.  If you feel bad because you haven’t made it to the gym in three weeks, then I totally understand.  But don’t feel bad because you think you’re fat—feel bad because you know you need the dose of seratonin that only an awesome workout can give you.  I hate when people equate a missed workout (or 20…) with being fat and miserable.

With that said, I also want to share that I have been struggling lately.  I understand what it feels like to not feel good about your body.  I understand frustration, hoplessness, discouragement, and all of the other things that hold us back from success—not only in fitness, but in life.  For me, success in the gym mirrors success in life; the will to squeeze out that last rep when I think I can’t, or the tenacity to stay in the fight after I’ve been hit in the face so hard I can’t see straight define who I am not only as an athlete but as a person.

But in these last few months, I have been profoundly rocked.  My mind desperately wanted to squeeze out that last rep, but my body wouldn’t let me.  My mind forced my body to spar multiple rounds, but afterward I couldn’t recover for a week.  Despite eating well and exercising reguarly, I watched my clothes stop fitting and the number on the scale go up.  I literally had to force myself to go to the gym, even though I have spent years easily waking up at 5 a.m. for training.  After years of being fit and lean and disciplined and having control of my Self, suddenly everything about how I define my Self was ripped away.  I was left trying to figure out not only how to physically deal with the illness, but also how to mentally cope with the changes.

I am on the road to recovery now, but it is difficult.  In fact, it’s almost more difficult than the years of work I put in before taking the stage in my first bodybuilding show.  I thought that maybe I’d get a diagnosis (I actually ended up with two), get some medicine, and everything would be better.  Voila!  But the reality is that this is going to be a longer road than I expected.  After about a month of treatment, I am free of the debilitating fatigue, my weight has gone down by about 8 of the 12 pounds I gained, and I generally feel normal.  But my strength and endurance are down in a way that hurts my pride almost more than the physical pain of the illness.

This week, I faced the truth: I am starting over.  Not over as in setting a new goal and moving forward, but over as in from the beginning.  And the beginning was several years ago. My bodyfat is not much lower than what it was before I started bodybuilding.  My strength and endurance are not what I’m used to—I jump up to the pullup bar for multiple sets of 10 and freeze after the first set of 6.  I put my shoes on for an easy 10 mile run and wipe out around 3.   I feel more like a lump of coal than a finely tuned athlete.

But wait—before you think this is me feeling sorry for myself, stick around.  This is me saying, “dude, I’ve been there.  I’m there now.  But I am picking myself up and starting over…join me.”  This is more difficult than squeezing out that last rep or finishing a round with a freshly broken nose.  Those examples have forward momentum and optimism in their favor, but right now I’m fighting discouragement, and I know for a fact that it’s a tough opponent.  Maybe your started Couch to 5K and stopped after the third week.  Maybe you made a New Year’s resolution and have already quit.  The discouragement is the worst part.  Get over that and get back up!

For me, back to the beginning means back to the weights.  I love training muay thai and boxing, but I have had to accept that my body can’t recover from them right now.  I have to take time off from it and watch my teammates train without me.  That is not fun.  But I have the pleasure of rediscovering the little things that got me hooked in the first place, like the calluses on my hands from heavy deadlifts or a bruise on my back from the squat bar.  I don’t look as lean and ripped as I’d like to for the kind of training I’m putting in, but the frustration of that is teaching me a lesson about pride…and speaking of pride, I’m also not back to big weight [yet, hehe….], but I’m at about 75% and I’ll have to take that for now.  My body will decide when it’s ready to get lean and go heavy, but it loves to build muscle and it is built for power so for now I will focus on that.

Maybe you are an athlete with a thyroid condition, a runner with celiac disease, a college grad who can’t find a job, a couch potato who keeps trying and quitting,  a fast food junkie who desperately wants to eat better, a writer who can’t get past a blank page, or a smoker who can’t seem to quit…I know that every single person who reads this blog has some sort of inner battle.  And I am fascinated by the fact that for all of us it comes down to a battle of will that calls on us to triumph over discouragement.

My blog is changing because my health has caused major changes to my diet.  At this point, I no longer know who my audience is!  Those of you who have been with me since I started may not relate to my gluten-free lifestyle, and people who are just tuning in specifically for support for celiac disease and/or Hashimoto’s disease could probably benefit from reading about my journey.  I’m going to mix it up a little bit in my posts, and I will add a page soon that details my celiac/Hashimoto’s story.  So look for that soon!

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For today’s recipe, I have to share with you what I made for dinner tonight—three recipes in one blog!  I made coconut almond chicken nuggets, candied braised greens, and turnip/potato mash.   I made these up on the spot tonight because Mike is currently on a grain-free and dairy-free diet, I can’t have gluten, and I am cooking for a six year old.  So I have to get a little creative!

Coconut-Almond Chicken Nuggets:

1 lb chicken breast, pounded flat and cut into pieces
olive oil or 2 eggs, beaten
Unsweetened coconut flakes
Almond meal
A greased glass baking dish

You’ll notice that I didn’t list any measurements: basically, you’ll want to set up a breading station, with a bowl of almond meal, a bowl of olive oil, and a bowl of coconut.  Dip each piece of chicken first in the olive oil or egg, then roll in almond meal to coat, and then carefully press it into the coconut (if the coconut doesn’t stick, sprinkle with olive oil or re-dip in the egg before pressing into coconut).   Gently lay each piece on the baking sheet.  Bake at 425 for about 20 minutes.

Candied Braised Greens:  (Isabella LOVED these)

2 slices of bacon (optional but yummy!)
2-4 bunches of greens (I used mustard and red kale tonight)
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
1 tbsp sugar or honey
chopped onion (I had to use powder since Mike hates onions)
1 garlic clove, minced

Fry bacon in the bottom of a large pot until it browns; add garlic and onion and cook for about one minute, adding a little bit of water if necessary.  Add the apple cider vinegar, water, and sugar; bring to a boil.  Add the greens a bit at a time so that each bit can cook down a little.  Once all of the greens are added, boil for about ten minutes, then reduce heat to medium/low and cover.  I start these first so that they can simmer while everything else is cooking.

Mashed turnip and potato:

3 potatoes (I used Yukon gold)
3 large turnips (the ones I got at the farmers market today were as big as baseballs!)
butter and milk are optional, but I didn’t use them tonight
salt and pepper to taste.

Peel and dice the potatoes and the turnips; boil for 15 minutes.  Season and mash to taste!  I like to mash them only partially because we really enjoy the chunks of turnip that get left behind.

Ok, So What CAN We Eat??

It’s been a minute since my last post, but I’m alive!  I’m just getting a little bit tired of writing about the ups and downs I’m experiencing with my thyroid and celiac issues.  I’m wondering if I’ll ever even out and get to a point of steady normalcy.  Right now I alternate between good days and bad days—but a month ago they were all bad days, so I guess I can’t complain.

 Quick side note: avoiding foods because I have to is a hell of a lot better than               doing it because I choose to.  At an office meeting recently (oh yeah, I have a job now, more on that later) there was pizza.  Lots and lots of pizza.  And I couldn’t touch it.  But instead of being the big white dieting elephant in the room, I was the Girl With the Allergies and it was simple enough.  No one felt uncomfortable or judged! Suhweet!  

I want to avoid writing too much about my attempts to live without gluten.  My audience is not primarily the celiac community, and I don’t want to lead people to a bandwagon.  I hate nutrition trends, so I’m a little annoyed that gluten-free has cropped up as a huge trend.   I recognize that it has potential to cause inflammation in a lot of people, but it seems like everything does.  Soy, nuts, dairy, and gluten are all being avoided by the “health” community.  Meanwhile, the fitness community is all about avoiding sugar and monitoring carbs and fats.  Others warn against any and all animal products.  And even my doctor warns against “nightshade” vegetables (which include tomato and potato, among others).  And while the medical, fitness, and holistic health communities are busy ruling out EVERYTHING, a high percentage of Americans are still eating fast food!  What the hell is anyone supposed to eat?  How do we explain these conflicting ideas?

I do know one thing: FOOD IS NOT THE ENEMY.  Well, not exactly.

We need to recognize that while this may be food, it is not exactly nutritious!

Most fad diets and nutritional trends have one thing in common: they point to inexpensive convenience foods as the culprit.  And I agree.  Fast food, chemically enhanced frozen foods, hormonally enhanced meats and dairy products, vegetables covered in pesticides, a general absence of vegetables from most Americans’ meals, and an abundance of sugary, fatty foods have all combined to create a disgusting food culture in the United States.   As food industries have learned to sell the maximum amount of food for the most amount of revenue, people have learned to seek foods that pack in the most amount of taste for the least amount of effort and cost.  Why eat those complicated, expensive vegetables when for only a dollar and about two minutes you can enjoy a burger that has been chemically engineered to satisfy your taste buds?  It’s sad that as a culture we’re now to the point that we’d rather hit up a drive thru than take five extra minutes to walk into a grocery store produce aisle, let alone the 30 minutes to buy from the grower.

How have we learned to pass up these colors for the blandness of a fast food burger?!

Instead of ruling out entire food groups, I would really like to see a renewed effort to seek whole foods that can be easily traced back to a source.  This doesn’t have to be a big huge deal—it can start with such a small effort.  Replace one meal a day with a meal containing fresh vegetables.  I know, I know, it’s not the same as Zaxby’s.  It’s not the same as a big steak.  You’re used to being completely stuffed to the point of discomfort after meals and you’re afraid you can’t really be satisfied by vegetables.  But you have to train your palette to recognize the taste of vegetables.  And at first, maybe you’ll just be so proud you cooked a veggie meal that you don’t care how it tastes.  And after that, the appeal of experimentation sustains the project.  But before you realize it, you’ll have—gasp—a favorite vegetable!  Maybe even a favorite veggie meal!

 

If you have kids, get them involved as well!  My daughter would never have eaten collard greens if I had not involved her in the cleaning and de-stemming process.  I recognize that her opinion of vegetables will form somewhere, whether it’s from listening to the kids at school talk about them, or from the jabs made on TV by her favorite characters—so it’s up to me to get there first.  I talk to her about the sweetness of Brussels sprouts, my favorite vegetable, and I describe the flavors that she should learn to recognize.  I told her that most people can’t taste how sweet Brussels sprouts are because they eat too many fast foods with salt and sugar in them, and that she’d have to pay really close attention in order to taste it.  Now she thinks we’re in a secret club where only really cool people like us can taste Brussels sprouts the right way.  I guess I’ll just go with that for a little while…

Does it get any cuter than a kid washing kale with total glee?

If you’re thinking that you’d like to try vegetables but you don’t know where to start, then that’s what I’m here for!  But in case you missed my first 20 blog posts and don’t have time to go back and read them, start here: visit a farmer’s market, point to a vegetable—any vegetable—and ask the person working the stand for advice about that vegetable.  There is no dumb question—half of what they’re there for is to sell their product, but the other half of their purpose is to educate the public.

Today’s recipe is simple, and it answers a question that I once asked in total earnest: “What the hell can you do with collard greens?”  If you grew up in the South like I did, you’ve had your fill of “greens.”  Grandma spent hours boiling them with a ham hoc, and grandpa ate them with vinegar.  While the memory does bring on a bit of nostalgia, I don’t exactly recall any particular fondness for the taste.   So really what I wanted to know was, “what else can you do with collard greens?”

Creamed Collard Greens:

1 Bunch of greens, washed and chopped with stalks removed (kale works well too)
1/3 cup milk
2/3 cup broth
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour (I now use cornstarch as my thickener but it’s not the same)
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (trust me)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp onion powder

Basically you start by making a roux: melt the butter in a pan, and slowly sprinkle in your flour.  I do about half the flour and whisk, then I add the other half and whisk some more.  Add a very small amount of milk to the pan and whisk.  Repeat until you’ve added all of the milk and you have a creamy mixture.**  Stir in broth, cayenne, paprika, and onion powder.  Bring this mixture just to the point of boiling and then stir in your greens.  Continue to stir until the greens have reduced in size and are coated by the mixture.  Add more broth if more liquid is needed.  Reduce heat to medium/low and cover; cook for ten minutes, stirring occasionally.

**This step is not one I’ve been able to accurately explain–I know, because I once tried to walk Mike through my gravy recipe over the phone.  Total failure.  So if you’ve never made a roux before, let me explain: the idea is to get a perfect combination of butter and flour without making a clumpy mess.  So the trick, for me, is to remove my pan from the burner while I’m whisking. And KEEP IT MOVING with your whisk!!!  It is also important that you don’t simply dump all of the milk into the pan at once–trust me, you’ll have a pan full of milk with little flour balls if you do that.  And don’t try to get by with a fork!  You absolutely need a whisk.  Also be sure that, at least during this step, you are not trying to multitask!  Your full attention is needed.  Once you get it the first time, you’ll be fine forever.