Sunday, October 23, 2016

What the Fork?

You may or may not know that I am a dietitian. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Loma Linda University in California in 1995 (well, actually, I was informed after my supposed graduation that I was short 12 elective units [!!], which took me an additional two years to complete [what with having a baby and all], so I didn't receive my degree until 1997 - but I digress).

After earning my degree I also sat for the registration exam and earned my RD (Registered Dietitian). I spent several years working as an RD in long term care facilities and government run preschool programs, until I had my twins... followed by about 10 years of a melt-down/survival mode/time-warp.

In 2010, just before the birth of my youngest son, I was offered another opportunity to work as a dietitian, this time as a nutrition writer for EBSCO Information Services, a medical/educational resource publisher. Since then I have been reviewing current research (including meta-analyses, systematic reviews, randomized controlled studies, case studies, and more) and compiling the data into educational nutrition resources to be used in practice and study by medical professionals and students. I have enjoyed this work. I love the constant flow of new, relatively unbiased, information across my desk. It has given me the unique opportunity of knowing what I'm talking about (at least when it comes to nutrition).

Food is life. Air, water, FOOD. Without it we die. With it we live... but that, only to the degree of the quality of the food we eat. This makes the study of nutrition fascinating to me. It is also a great motivator for eating well.

The topic of nutrition can be overwhelming. Each bite we eat contains a diverse universe of constituents, with a vast range of both nutritive and destructive properties. Some elements are beneficial, unless eaten in excess or in combination with competing factors; others are latent, unless interacting with collaborating nutrients. Some are naturally occurring, others originate in labs. It really is a labyrinth of factors and cofactors working with and against each other for or against our health. And when I say 'health', I mean our WHOLE being, body and mind.

The complexity behind the issue of diet and nutrition is a significant barrier to people educating themselves about diet and making good dietary choices. This is why substantial funding has gone into educational tools such as the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) and Health and Human Services' jointly published report, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, along with the Food Guide Pyramid, later transitioned to MyPlate.

After 6 years of reviewing thousands of studies and writing hundreds of nutrition papers coving such topics as Vitamin A, Zucchini, Nutrition and Pregnancy, Nutrition and Mental Health, Diet, Epigenetics, and Cancer, Manuka Honey, and so many more, I have taken note of some important findings that repeatedly show themselves, even when they weren't the focus of the studies. For example, the fact that higher dietary consumption of probiotics is associated with a reduced risk of all-cause morbidity and mortality, or that most nutrients are most effective when consumed in combination with other nutrients, as would be found in whole foods (as opposed to individual supplements).

I have been toying with writing a weekly blog post on nutrition-related topics. (Would that interest you?) But, in the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to my three followers to present a few basic guidelines to follow when standing in the middle of the grocery store in that overwhelmed, 'I want to be healthy but have no idea where to start - oh hell, where are the Oreos?' stupor. So, here goes (and I'm certain that I will leave valuable information out - but that's what the edit feature is for...):

  • Inclusion over Exclusion: Focus on what needs to be included in your diet and the stuff that needs to be avoided will most likely get edged out, or at least minimized
  • Eat ALL the Colors (of natural foods): All food has color. That color is the result of nutrients creating chemical reactions. Therefore, it makes sense that different colors are derived from different nutrients. SO, if the goal is to consume a variety of nutrients, the easiest way to ensure that will happen is to consume a variety of colors. Remember: Natural food. No Nerds or gummy worms are to be included in this rule
  • Eat ALL the Categories (again, of natural foods): I know there is a huge Paleo following out there. I'm not going to delve into that here but it is important to understand that each category of macronutrients (i.e., fat, protein, carbohydrate) plays a different and vital role in the metabolism of the human body. For best results, we require fuel from each category. Inevitably, things get unbalanced and begin to breakdown when any one of those categories is eliminated, minimized, or over-consumed in the diet. At this point, don't get caught up in percentages. In stead, focus on quality and choosing unaltered (by manufacturers) foods. *A note about Fat: Choose unsaturated and natural (primarily from vegetables/nuts/fish/lean meats). Please avoid chemically altered fats, typically found in processed food (key words: hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, trans-fats)
  • If Including Supplements, I recommend these: 1. Omega-3 fatty acids (eg., fish oil/krill oil): Most westernized diets don't come close to including enough of these but omega-3s have been shown to be protective against dementia, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, numerous cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, and all-cause mortality. 2. Probiotics: I'm still researching which ones are most reliably effective (let me know your favorites!), but I cannot tell you how many studies report that disease conditions are improved and/or prevented by the intake of probiotics. Probiotics are vital to the healthy functioning of the gut, which is the command center for, well, everything - including the brain, btw. 3. B-complex vitamins: B-complex vitamins are big players in cognitive health and mental well-being. Studies consistently report differences in B-vitamin status (either consumption or biomarkers within the body) in individuals with all ranges of psychological issues (eg., bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD, senility, addiction). Whether these differences are due to poor dietary intake or malfunctions of metabolism isn't fully understood. 
  • Coffee and Dark Chocolate ARE GOOD FOR YOU: Ok, maybe this didn't need to be included in my short list of guidelines, but, it's true. Coffee (not frappuccino, not mocha, not caramel macchiato) has proven to be beneficial. Similarly, dark chocolate (not Snickers, not milkshake, not rockyroad) has many beneficial properties. Both are powerful antioxidants and mood-boosters, so enjoy!
So, there it is, my friends. My short list of dietary guidelines. Maybe, if you are interested (... and if I can get my act together), I will try to write some weekly nutrition notes for y'all to read. I'd love your input on this, so share freely!


Friday, October 21, 2016


There's a lot of chatter filtering up to my window from Chickendom.

Mr. Collins (so named for his uncanny resemblance to the dowdy clergyman from Pride and Prejudice) is making some sort of urgent announcement.
Mr. Collins

He could be alerting the girls to eminent danger (in the form of predators, or, you know, leaves), or he could be asserting his domination over Salty, his only competition for the ladies' affections. Both roosters are bantams (i.e., smaller than average versions), however, Mr. Collins is a smidge less bantamy than Salty, making him the big (snicker) man on campus. If only the ladies were a bit more convinced of his rooster prowess.

Mr. Collins could also be complaining about the weather or the quality of treats currently available to him. OR he is just really proud of his raspy, starts off-strong-but-peters-out, crow. COCK-A-DOodle-do? 

It must be important because the guineas have lost their minds again and are bouncing about the chicken yard like pinballs whilst shrieking their (most unfortunate) alarms. It's okay, folks, the farm isn't burning down; it's just my guineas.

Regardless, the flock is in generally good spirits today, what, with like 7 hours of no rain. Alpha hen Helen's once-white feathers are only moderately dingy today - an improvement over her typical red-mud coated/wet dog impersonation. The Buffy's (aka Thing One and Thing Two) have a clear fashion advantage on rainy days due to their buff-colored feathering. Oh, and don't think they don't know it! Always scampering about with coy little chicken smirks, "what? is it raining? we hadn't noticed." Ah, but the rest of the flock is on to them. The Buffy's have been effectively banished from the roost at bedtime, leaving them to shuffle and teeter on the slanted nest box roof. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

We Bought the Farm! (well... we're trying to anyway)

Over the past 5 years my love of landscaping and gardening has bloomed into a full-blown passion for farming, complete with fertilizer bunnies and chicken wrangling (many in the farm-world say, chickens are the gateway drug to farming). In the many hours I have spent digging in the dirt, wrestling weeds, building fences and chicken coops, and falling in love with my chickens and Potager Cottage, I have discovered that it is in those moments that I am the most at peace with myself.

Along this same journey has been my husband, and creative cohort, Klee. He has appreciated the calm of sitting outside, listening to chicken clucks and watching our food grow, but his discoveries have been in his own creative endeavors. For years he has been studying the art of fermentation and food preservation, developing flavors and textures in sauerkrauts, pickles, jams, kvass, and vinegars. We even started our business, Spoiled Rotten Vinegar, a cottage industry, for the production and sale of his products. And, this year, with great pride, I witnessed Klee accept a Good Food Award, at the hands of Alice Waters, Nell Newman, and Carlo Petrini, for his elegantly developed, Blackstrap vinegar.

As Klee and I have been honing our individual skills and growing in our Potager Cottage and Spoiled Rotten Vinegar endeavors, we have been feeling the need to expand our cottage farm into a thriving business with a commercial kitchen in order to produce Klee's vinegars and culinary creations on a larger scale. We have faced repeated obstacles as we've reached out beyond our comfort zones, some that have knocked us down hard and left us feeling defeated. We even accepted defeat a few (or ten) times. But, the defeat never lasted, because we both felt the push in our core, in that place of your being that is the most honest, and the most driven, because it is who you are. So, we continued digging in the dirt, brewing vinegars in our closet, and searching with open hearts for our place.

Then the Good Food Awards affirmed Klee's skill and the value of his products, to us and to the greater culinary market. Suddenly, the demand for Spoiled Rotten Vinegar stretched far beyond our capability in this little rented cottage... and just as far beyond the capacity of our pocket book. In exasperation I voiced my frustration with our need to expand and our lack of options on Facebook, and the Universe (God, karma, fate, good fortune, whatever you're comfortable with) answered back through the voice of a distant friend.

It started as a long-shot idea in our friend's heart, and somehow, has evolved into a series of wide open doors. Every barrier that we imagined would prevent us from progressing further has disintegrated without resistance. The path has been carved out in such a way that it almost seems ungrateful (or even defiant) for us not to walk down it. With equal parts giddiness and panic, Klee and I have decided to take the steps forward.

In a few weeks we will be loading up a (another) moving truck and driving eight hours north to a six-acre farm in Eugene, Oregon. We will be moving into a 1973 farm house (that needs some love), which we will be renting only as long as it takes for us to acquire a loan to make the property our very own homestead! Our own home that we can spend the rest of our days loving and cultivating, a safe haven for our children. Sitting on the property are several outbuildings, including a very large barn, which we refer to as the future Spoiled Rotten Vinegar headquarters! It's almost too much to believe. And it's scary, because you know, things could go wrong. If you think too long and hard (especially at night) you could conceive of all kinds of potential problems and pitfalls. But, when presented with a string of open doors, you walk through them. That's what life is about. So, we're doing it, together. We're... going scared.

Future Potager Cottage
Future Spoiled Rotten Vinegar Headquarters
Future Front Door View

Friday, January 15, 2016

Of Vinegar, Passion, and Chez Panisse

Tonight I had the honor of strapping on my red stilettos and slipping into a teal laced dress so I could proudly hang on the arm of a handsomely dressed Graham Klee Wiles-Pearson as we attended a highly esteemed awards ceremony at the Herbst Pavilion in San Francisco. In the presence of slow food movement founder, Carlo Petrini, chef activist and owner of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters, and philanthropist and advocate for sustainable agriculture and conservation, Nell Newman, Klee (of Spoiled Rotten Vinegar) received the well-deserved designation of Good Food Awards 2016 Winner for his elegantly formulated Blackstrap Vinegar.

I am immensely proud, and not at all surprised, that I am not alone in recognizing Klee's uncommon talent. I have witnessed his culinary magic as he weaves flavors together in the kitchen and have heard the praises from those tasting his works of art. His dedication to detail and honesty in his craftsmanship inspire me in my own endeavors. As a chef, he holds himself to the highest standard. Every plate is deliberately dressed to the nines. His perfectionism is steep; a ledge I occasionally have to talk him down from.

My pride exceeds this culinary celebration, though. I'm proud of US... CherKlee. Together, my love and I have trudged though some deep mud and, slowly, we continue to unearth our better selves. We share uncanny similarities despite obvious polarity in our life experiences. At our cores we are both raw, creative, and passionate misfits. We have the ability to bring out the worst and the absolute best in each other. I have felt us transform along our walk together. Our love has evolved and has produced profitable change. We took on an incredible challenge by choosing to do life together and have been amply rewarded. I am compelled to confess that I have fallen so deeply in love with this brilliant, beautiful man.

Congratulations my sweet love, Graham Klee Wiles-Pearson!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Life Changing Chicken Wrangling

When I moved back to California from Arizona eight years ago I moved into a cute neighborhood in Pleasant Hill called Poet's corner. I loved that little pocket of vintage homes, established trees, and curvy streets bearing the names of poets. In the fall I would take long walks as I admired the uniquely updated homes set on large, garden-filled lots. I could smell the smoke in the air filtering out of the fireplaces as the crisp fall leaves crunched under my feet. It was inspiring for my project-loving, non-conformist, writer's soul. Many tangled thoughts became clear on those walks. Many mental seeds took root. My favorite house was perched on a corner with a meandering yet controlled garden cushioning its edges. Across the street from that house sat a home with a lovely hand-built chicken coop planted in the front yard. And there it was; the beginning; the knowing that one day I too would be a keeper of chickens!
It has now been seven months since we inherited our first flock. I am a changed woman. Initially, I looked at my chicks as small fluffy alien-like life forms. They were cute little novelty items, akin to fish swimming in a tank. I was excited about the prospect of future home-laid eggs but I was also nervous about the work involved with maintaining the coop (specifically, the obscenely profuse production of poop). I was not prepared for the endearing quirks and unique personalities of each bird. I didn't expect the connection that I would feel to them individually. Beyond that, I couldn't have known that this experience of raising and caring for chickens would strengthen my sense of responsibility to "life" itself, as represented by animals, humanity, and the planet that supports it all.
How does chicken keeping translate into benevolence toward all living things? I'm not sure that it does; not for everyone (or for anyone other than me); not in the golden ticket kind of way. It may have just been what I needed. I can't say that I was hit with a bolt of altruism the very day that Klee and I drove our first batch of silkies home. It has been more of a quiet opening of my heart. It's in the minutia: the scooping of poop, clipping of wings, coop construction, food selection, free-range wrangling, sick chick nursing. In researching what to feed them, what kind of bedding to use, how much roaming and perch space they need, I found myself considering not just their needs but their happiness. As they grew I got excited about the new feathers they were sprouting and their adolescent transitions from peeps to b'gawks. I loved observing the bonds they developed with each other. The daily routine of letting the girls out to play in the chicken yard, cleaning the poop out from under their perches, and filling their food and water isn't so much a chore but a zen-like activity that calms my mind, replacing anxious thoughts with live chicken entertainment. As I tend to the garden around the chicken coop I am amused and soothed by the clucks, pips, and hums of the flock.
The truth is, I don't really know how the chickens did it. I'm sure they didn't work alone. What I do know is that I LOVE more since they've been here. I like that.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Milton, Myrthful, and Potager Cottage

I wrote this post about a year ago on my personal memoirs blog, My Groovy Entropy . I feel it is pertinent to our Potager Cottage story, so I've decided to post here as well. I hope you enjoy this snippet of my evolution:

My grandpa, Milton, was a watermelon farmer. 

He grew other melons too, but watermelons were his big crop. I remember loading up his truck to drive the melons into town to sell, just like they're doing in the photo below.

Grandpa Milton, Grandma Myrthful, and helper.

 When we were young, my brother and I would spend summers with my grandparents on their Arizona farm, and later, on their Idaho farm (pictured to the left). My grandparents (the Mundalls) were extremely conservative, hard-working folks. No TV; not a lot of toys; no shopping days or restaurants; no parties; no air conditioning; just farm.

On Saturdays they took us to a tiny church that smelled like old hymnals and dentures. And, during the week, if we worked enough rows of melons, grandpa would take us into the Weiser town pool to go swimming.

I remember missing my mom immensely during these long summer visits, but, I also remember all the smells, sounds, and feels of the farm. It was always hot, even at night. We left the windows open, turned on the loud square fans and stood in the cold shower with our pjs on just before bed in hopes that the wet clothes would keep us cool enough to fall asleep before they dried. Mornings came early and were cool enough to be tolerable, for a minute or two.

The house smelled like comfort, like fresh-baked wheat sticks. I don't ever remember going to a grocery store. Grandma, Myrthful, made everything we ate from scratch, mostly from ingredients grown in her gardens. She had a large deep freezer in the garage, the kind you had to use an ice-pick to dig the food out of, where she froze fruits and veggies for the winter; and a large canning pantry filled with jars of peaches, applesauce, apricots, green beans, and any other garden treasure you might imagine. She grew everything. And I had the privilege (not that I appreciated it) of working right along side her from dawn to dusk.

Myrthful in her garden.  Notice the stick-made bean poles.

We took scraps to the hens and cleared the boxes of the fresh eggs. We milked the cows and carried the buckets to the mud room, where they sat to be skimmed (seems like there was always a bucket or two of milk in there). We climbed the ladders to collect fruit from her many fruit trees. She would send me into the towering tomato plants with a metal-handled bucket and a mission to pluck off every last pudgy green tomato worm. We sat on the porch and snapped beans, shucked peas, and husked corn (which I liked to make dolls out of). In the kitchen I had a stool in front of the sink where I would wash and halve apricots, carefully removing the worms form the center. I set the table, cleared the table, washed the dishes, and collapsed into a cozy chair when the day came to a close.

I don't ever remember hearing a radio, just the crickets, toads, mosquitos, train whistles, chicken clucks, cow moans, tires rolling on rugged dirt paths, and the whispery whistles my grandma would compose while sewing or crocheting in the evening.

Grandpa was a smallish man, I think about 5 foot 7 inches tall, but he was huge in my eyes. He always donned a woven cowboy hat that smelled of straw, sweat, and shampooed hair. When he came in for the night he scrubbed his hands with irish spring (or a soap that smelt of that). He laughed in bellows and told "true" stories of his many adventures with bears and lions and caves, that only seemed possible in the world of fiction. He worked his fields with fierce determination. If I was lucky, I got to ride in his tractor, or beside him in his farm trucks (known to be missing doors) over the dirt roads when he took his melons into town. He called milk, "cow juice" and soy sauce, "bug juice".  And he was my favorite. I would begrudge my brother who got to run off to do chores with grandpa while grandma made me stay in and learn to sew.

We got to play sometimes too. My brother and I would sit at the irrigation ditch and use the mud to make bricks for houses. We would spend hours there. To this day I love the smell of the irrigation ditches when I drive on old farm roads. I roll the windows down and inhale the cool air and childhood memories. We would climb the hay bales in the barn and jump from great heights to piles of hay below. We would put milk bowls out for the random farm kitties that were always skittering about. We would catch grasshoppers and toads. And, we always enjoyed spinning around in the tire swing hanging from the tree out front.

Those years were a gift. They rooted a love within me for playing in the dirt and living a simple, organic, sustainable life. I feel my heritage when I'm digging in our cottage garden now. I sense their  love for the farm and nature; a love that they passed on to their five daughters and beyond. This little corner house surrounded in untamed dirt and weeds feeds that love in me.

It has been 4 months since we moved into this cottage in Benicia. These have not been easy months. Our home has demanded patience, creative organization, and hard labor from us, nearly breaking us.  I have always named my homes, a practice I picked up from a short time at school in England. I love how English homes are named. Home is so personal to me that a name seems more appropriate than a sterile number. We have debated names for this home since before we moved in, but have struggled to settle on anything. We decided to just sit with it. Live in the house and wait for her name to present itself. At last, it has! As I was wandering through the land of Pinterest the other day I came across the name for a vegetable garden that sits just outside your door; it's called a potager. Perfect! We have vegetable gardens just outside our front and back doors. So we have dubbed our sweet little home 'Potager Cottage'. She's not a farm but she has revived my sweet memories from those summer days and the two beautiful souls who instilled this home-grown love in me.

Potager Cottage

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Planting From Seed... Like A Boss

Potager Cottage has come a long way these past months. Klee and I tore up the weed-infested backyard and added a garden gate that we found in the free section of craigslist.

Then we used the lasagna method to start our back potager. We laid down old cardboard and a lot of newspaper, which we collected from the trash bins behind the Benicia Herald. Then we laid down piles of dried leaves and truckloads of compost, followed by topsoil from a local organic supplier.

I was determined to grow from seed. I mean that's all my grandparents used, how hard could it be? Unfortunately, the top soil we added was water-repellent, making my valiant attempt to grow from seed nearly impossible.

After months of soil amending and reseeding, we finally have some plants growing. It has been a humbling learning experience for me. One does not merely plant seeds in the ground to grow plants.

So here are a few tips I've learned about growing from seed:

  • SOIL MATTERS! Make sure the soil has been well blended with compost and will absorb and retain water. This is key. The soil we used originally (which I laid over a thick layer of compost) was so water-repellent that I could actually see the water beed up and roll off of the soil. * Seemingly obvious tip: Prepare your soil prior to planting your seeds, as it is very difficult to amend soil after seeds have been planted.
  • Soak the seeds. I read zillions of blogs about planting seeds but none mentioned this little trick. Thankfully, I am a farmer's daughter's daughter. So, my mother told me to soak the seeds overnight prior to planting. This made a big difference in my second attempt at seed planting.
  • Dig ditches between rows and troughs around mounds to capture the water run-off and to encourage the roots to reach deeper into the soil. I even made a divot in the center of the mounds, with seeds planted around it, to catch more water.
  • MULCH! Mulch helps the soil to retain moisture. Straw works really well, but I didn't have any on hand and I knew it was going to be a very hot day, so I surrounded each baby plant with wood chips.
  • WATER. This seems like a no-brainer, but I didn't realize that seeds need to be watered twice a day until established. They are considered established when the second set of leaves appear. For us Californians, who are currently in a severe drought, watering twice a day feels like an act of treason. Rest assured, the watering is light and temporary. Ultimately, less than the water required for lawn maintenance; and you're growing food! 
  • Seeds do what they want. You can plant with the best of intensions, placing each seed precisely as the packet instructed you, but seeds are wily and fickle little nuggets. They migrate with the help of birds, wind, water, to wherever they deem worthy to germinate. And then they mock you. Just go with it.
In my next seed attempt I plan to start my seeds indoors in eggshells or starter pods. I have failed miserably at starting indoors in the past; but that was with transplanting from a tray, in which I managed to destroy each and every baby root that I had painstakingly grown over the previous weeks. This time I will be able to place the whole vessel straight into the ground without disturbing the root. How hard can it be?