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Posts Tagged ‘water’

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Last spring my friend Teresa told me about her boyfriend’s passion for St- Germain, an elderflower liqueur. She asked if I ever forage for elderflowers, because she’d love to give him a homemade bottle of the liqueur—or a close facsimile.

I’d never sought them out, didn’t even know if they grew in central New Jersey, but when I consulted the oracle of Google I learned they did.

Then I discovered three more factoids:

1) They start blooming right around the time honeysuckle is at its peak, so I need to hustle with honeysuckle so I can hit the elderflowers before they go to seed. Last year I missed the window.

2) Once you start looking for elderflowers in season, you start seeing them everywhere. Every major roadside in my area has clumps here and there, white pom poms waving at me from the street. They like to grow near water sources, from lakes to nearly-dry waterways deep in thickets. Where there’s water, there’s the elderflower. Often enough. And goodness knows New Jersey is a watery state, so yay.

3) You have to smell them to check if they’re sweet. They’re not like honeysuckle, which is consistent as the day is long. Some elderflowers hardly have a scent at all; others might even smell like the lake they grow beside. You want a sweet/grassy fragrance.

I brought my pastry-chef friend Matthew a few to work with, and he used them to flavor a cream topping. The rest came home with me and became syrup. For every four cups of flowers, I matched it with four cups of water (1 quart), and 3 cups sugar. Dissolved the sugar in the water in a heavy-bottomed pan and brought it just barely to a boil, then I put the flower heads in (rinsed in running water first), face down. Then I took it off the heat and let it cool.

After that, I set cheesecloth in the bottom of a colander set over a big bowl, and strained the flowers out. The syrup is a lovely light golden color and delicately sweet.

I loaded it into a freezer bag and added it to the freezer. Some collect salt-and-pepper shakers and skinny Elvis dishes. I seem to collect homemade syrup. The elderflower has taken its post with lilac, honeysuckle, wild mint, and wisteria, and are the divas of the frozen world.

Teresa is getting a bottle of the latest to give to her boyfriend to play with. She wants it to be a surprise, so I told her about it in code on her Facebook page:

‘Soooooo I might have some yrup-say that I made from owers-flay which you requested last ing-spray :)’

Pig Latin never goes out of style.

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High-tide line, Atlantic Ocean.

red light green light

the feeling of almost,/the door between worlds ajar, now,/as two lights dim and fade to black/shape shifting within square one/scary, illuminating, boundless/the taste of chocolate/warm possibilities/second, and third, and more, chances,/as many as I want/swirling in circles like the leaves/this night between two days/slowly slowly letting its cloak fall

*

I wrote the above almost five years ago, just before I was about to move out on my own for the second time in my life. It’s striking how often life requires this of us, whether it’s literally moving (across town, across the country, or across oceans) or figuratively moving (away from old thinking into new). The only thing we can safely predict while we’re on this big blue ball is that nothing stays the same.

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A box turtle, weighing his options on my street in 2010.

When I was moving out in 2010, I held in my mind a statement I’d seen recently (funny how you see and hear what you need when you need it, right?) that said the human default reaction to change tends to be fear, but why can’t it be excitement? Why can’t we choose to see change as an adventure? This perspective helped me a lot during that Matterhorn of a year. I kept reminding myself that being in square one meant being in the unique position of being a shape-shifter. We can do, go, be, feel anything in square one.

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Women chilling at the beach at sunset.

Here’s another one: I was crap at bio, but I remember this tidbit from one of my classes: it’s at the edges—where the water meets the sand, where the grass meets the wood, where one ecosystem abuts another—that the greatest diversity and activity are present.

Think of harbor cities, and how they tend to be filled with people, languages, and foods from everywhere. Think of the wet sand just at the high-tide line, where mussels, clams, and other bivalves lie atop the sand, with sand crabs and more below. Everything on the dry end is bumping up against everything that just came in. Think of inland, where backyards and mini-malls bump up against property lines, where the tidied and civilized meets the wild and unspoiled—those are the places you’ll find an abundance of wildlife.

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Beach plums, which the deer like as much as I do.

It’s at the edges, of sand and land, where children love to play and dream most. As soon as they’re old enough, beach kids are at the high tide line, running, digging, splashing. I saw some tween girls at the beach one evening not long ago, creeping around the jetty rocks which hold back the ocean. I asked what they were doing and they said, ‘Just looking around.’ ‘For a class or just for fun?’ ‘Just for fun.’* Grownups are at the water’s edge, too—fishing, harvesting mussels, walking, thinking. Much activity.

Go to a barbecue at a house that edges a little bit of tangled brush, and that’s where the kids are tramping around, their parents squalling across the yard to be careful of poison ivy. There are acres and acres of beautiful grass in my hometown’s ball field…and we kids ambled right across it to poke around in the narrow strip of wood at its edge. That was where the late-spring honeysuckle grew, perfect for a sweet hit on our tongues, and where we learned orange flowers taste sweeter than white. It’s where the fern-like plant, the one that closed up when you touched it, lived.** There was not a whole lot to discover in the flat, level grass.

It’s at the water’s edge and at the grass’s edge where I’m happiest, for the same reason the kids are. I never outgrew that. And bonus: it’s inevitably where the foraging is best. At the edges of sidewalks I find purslane. At the edges of my town I find wild crab apples, hibiscus, and mint. At the edges of park lands and fancy shopping plazas I find elderflowers. At the edges of the lake I find mulberry trees. At the Sandy Hook peninsula, jutting out into the Atlantic, I find prickly pear and beach plums. And every year, along the edge of some beach or some property line, I discover something new.

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The end of my road, overlooking the lagoon.

I live at the beach, at the very edge of a continent. With the exception of six years away at school—boarding and then college—I have never lived anywhere else, and I’d really rather not. College especially was an uncomfortable shock: I learned what ‘land-locked’ meant. Who would think a person could feel claustrophobic with miles and miles of open space around her? Who would imagine the sense of relaxation and reassurance that could come from being at a definite boundary? Last winter I spent many an evening on the jetty of my beach, wanting to stand as closely as I safely could to the ocean, just to feel that reassurance. It’s like the maps they have at the mall, the ones that show an X, a you-are-here, don’t-worry-you’re-good identifier. There is peace in that X.

We are all at the edge of a equinoctial change now, too. Here in the northern hemisphere, Fall is imminent. Halloween is derived from the Wiccan feast of Samhain, which marks the beginning of winter. It’s believed this time is a liminal one, when the veil between the world of the living and the dead is thinner and can be traversed by spirits. Some cultures leave food, light candles, and more to appease the spirits and keep them from haunting homes.

Very similar are threshold myths: In ancient times it was believed doorways were another kind of edge, another liminal place. Like the two ecosystems butting up against each other, there is potential for significant, and in this case possibly dangerous, activity; anything can happen in this divider between worlds. Spirits, some potentially harmful, were believed to loiter in doorways. This is why grooms carry brides over thresholds—to prevent them from being snatched away.

Edges are powerful places.

This Fall (and whenever we’re up against an edge), I hope we own the chance to be shape-shifters, and are able to chase away fear and own that power.

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*So much for attesting that kids can’t look up from their phones, huh? 🙂

**We never learned its name, but thinking back, it must have been carnivorous. How cool is that?

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The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea. – Isak Dinesen

She left out coconut water, but nailed the other three, so I’ll let it slide.

On a 2008 trip to French Polynesia, everyone on our day trip to a nearby motu (uninhabited island) was treated to a lesson in the Tahitian way to crack open a coconut. That’s my ex above at left, giving it a solid try over stakes propped in the sand.*

I was born, raised, and to this day live very close to water. No exaggeration, it runs through my veins via skin and lungs. Where I sit right now, water is on three sides of me: lake in front and side, and the Atlantic Ocean at my back.

Tonight’s post is like running water—what I think of, and remember, when I think of water.

Dripping water is such a welcome sight in late winter; a sign spring isn’t far away. This was shot in March 2011.

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That summer, and a family at the ocean’s edge. Everyone hitched their pant legs and skirts up to their knees and splashed around and laughed. They were really charming.

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Peony petals, sunk to the bottom of a thick crystal vase. The crystal and water changed the shape and color and blurred the edges of the petals. When I go into water, any water—from ocean to pool to bathtub—my perceptions change. Light refracts memories, edges soften around thoughts. I remember looking down at my hands and feet through the glassy salt water where I spent every single summer, and remember how reality shifted and blurred, in a half-sleepy way, the way it feels after massage or yoga. When I finally came out of the water and the sun dried the salt water on my skin, it left a sparkling shadow. It always washed off in fresh water, but the psychic imprint remained.

Does spending so much time in and around water explain my penchant for daydreaming, for going deep? For tangents…?

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The more chances water has to touch something, the softer the edges of that something become. This is lagoon sand, encircled by boulders placed there nearly 100 years ago. When ocean water comes in, it tosses and tumbles the sand against the rocks. It is delicate as baby powder, and the loveliest stuff I have ever had under my feet.

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The below was taken from the bow of a little crabbing boat I was in last summer on the Navesink River, which feeds from the nearby ocean. When the clouds went across the sun, the wind picked up, and the choppy water became a luscious deep blue-green, like an enormous, expansive, malleable semi-precious stone.

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Water that surprises: I was riding my bike into Asbury Park last summer to meet my friend Lauren for lunch, and I bumped along the boardwalk as I rode. The old boards were dark and damp after strong rains, with just enough footfall in them to create puddles, and I caught the sun yawning and opening its eyes in the reflections.

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Another surprise last winter, when I was watching my step across the icy apron of my building’s driveway, I spotted this big trapped snowflake. Fantastic surprise.

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Last April I blogged about fog.** Couldn’t help it. This is my road looking east, about three blocks to the ocean—a dreamy 360-degree universe of tiny salt- and fresh water particles hanging mid-air, brushing my cheeks and hair and clinging to everything I wore. I could not stay away from the beach that day, craving the paradoxical comfort of being enveloped by icy water, of not being able to see beyond a few feet, let alone of the horizon. It was nourishment for a very weary soul.

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Autumn leaves floating by on my lake, in 2010, and the contrast of black water on a dark afternoon against shocking color. I look at it and smell the lake water, full of rain and salt (from the ocean, again), and the intoxicating fragrance of decaying leaves. The lake is another flavor of peace.

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When I was little and playing at the beach, sometimes I would get a cut. And when I’d run up to my mom and show her, she’d always say the same thing: ‘Go stick it in the water.’ That was the rule; other kids were told the same. No Band-Aids for the minor stuff. They’d fall off in the sand and water, anyway.

There’s not a lot the ocean can’t heal.

Here it is a few summers ago, early in the morning and early in the season, a mess of sparkles and chill as the sun rises.

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Tonight, at the end of August, it was warm and pink-lit. I just rode back a few hours ago, and am typing this with my sandy feet stretched out in front of me, nourished outside and in.

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*Since I dehydrate easily and have gotten myself sick during August heat waves, I’ve taken to drinking coconut water liberally. Luckily I love it. Gatorade was my first effort in getting back electrolytes, and was sweet enough to embarrass New Coke.

**Fog blogged? Flogged? No, that would hurt.

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Last year I picked corn—like in a corn field—for the first time. It was one of the most exquisitely peaceful experiences I’ve ever had. The field was several yards off a quiet road; no one else was around; the stalks towered and rustled over little me; and I’ve never seen Children of the Corn. All factored into a delicious, unscary sense of being enveloped, especially that last one.

Usually when harvesting I take in the beauty inherent in lush LIFE growing all around—the intense colors and weight of fruits and vegetables, full of water and sunshine, right at the peak of their lives. This year, quite unexpectedly, I noticed the beauty in the other side of the season, in the hints of autumn brushing dustily by, even in the heat of the sun.

In Japanese culture, it’s believed there is beauty not just in fullest life, but also in impermanence and decay. In the U.S., this concept confuses us and tends to make us a little jumpy. What do we do when a flower in a vase begins to wilt? We throw it away; we don’t want to see it once the wheel turns. I’m no different. But I want to learn to appreciate it at every phase.

Oddly enough, I found corn just as beautiful in its dropped and drying starkness as I did green and growing. And I edited in black and white for everything I shot, whether alive or dead, to keep from being distracted by color.

I do love a paradox, love disturbing juxtapositions. Maybe I can grow to love a wilting flower, too.

So. Here is summer—waxing and waning.

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For a change, here’s a tale of redemption preceded by really breathtaking incompetence. I had one All-Clad pan, a quart of olive oil, and a dream. And the result was I chased a good 97% of the oxygen out of my house. Man, I wish I were kidding.

I’ve never written about deep-frying because I’ve never done it before Wednesday night, when I made fried zucchini blossoms. I’ve always wanted to try them, and I was so excited when one of my readers submitted her recipe for my cooking project. When a native Roman offers you a recipe for this, you take it. Here it is, lightly edited.

Fried Zucchini Flowers with Mozzarella and Anchovy

3 or 4 squash flowers per person, very fresh and without the pistils. Flowers are extremely delicate so open them carefully and stuff with a little cube of mozzarella cheese and a piece of anchovy. Then prepare a thick batter with flour, sparkly cold water (or beer). Dip the stuffed flower into the batter and fry in lots of oil, very hot. Remove them when light-brown colored and dry the excess oil with a paper towel. It comes out like a cloud, with inside….the surprise!

Daniela Cassoni

Rome, Italy

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First I went to my favorite organic farm to pick some flowers, male ones. Males are just flowers; they won’t have a little tiny zucchini on the stem, or a little tiny pumpkin*. They’re both in the same Curcubit family and so the flowers look very similar. Either will work. Took a peek to make sure there weren’t any bugs inside the flowers, taking a breather from the heat. There were. Shook them out.

Then I went home and got started on this very simple recipe. Daniela doesn’t give amounts, so I winged it, and it still worked fine. That part, anyway. I pulled apart fresh mozzarella into pieces about the size of a grape, but I could have made them bigger. For the batter, I combined 1/2 cup all-purpose flour with 1/2 cup cold filtered water** and stirred it with a fork. The batter wasn’t as thick as she suggested it should be, but this worked for me. I lined a plate with a napkin so the flowers could drain on it as I took them out of the oil.

Don’t I sound so on-the-ball so far? What a superhero!

Now for the smoke part…

1) I should have washed the flowers and removed the pistils before heating up the oil. I’ll rephrase: The oil got way overheated and started puffing smoke. So when I put the flowers in they cooked within three seconds and in the fourth turned black, emitting several uncomfortable-looking bits of charred flour or cheese or anchovy for all I know. Unless oil can solidify and burn? Lord knows it was hot enough, so this is entirely possible.

2) I set the oil on high. Newsflash, Maris: oil will get as hot as Daniela says it needs to be if you have it on medium or medium-low and wait a little. Then it won’t, you know, smoke up the place so much that you expect Bela Lugosi to pop by.

Result: It smoked up the place, Bela Lugosi summarily ran for his life, the fire alarm in my hallway went off, I grabbed a chair to stand on, yanked the contraption apart with one hand and held a battered, cheesed, anchovied flower in the other. Then I opened every single window and my back door.

But I kept going. So the oil sort of shone in a lurid way! So the house was thick as pea soup! I had flowers to fry. One by one I dropped them in, and after every other breath (read: cough) I took them out.

I didn’t expect them to taste good—look at the picture below, they’re not exactly the picture of health—but I was knocked out.  It sounded a lot like this: ‘COUGHCOUGHCOUGHCOUGHcrunchoooooohnotbad! Pretty freaking amazing, actually. Crunch. Oh my…God. WOW!’

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Exhausted.

I ate every single one within 30 seconds and while standing at my counter. It was impossible to stop.

When you make these—and I hope you will, because they are RIDICULOUSLY delicious—do as I say and not as I do: do your prep work in advance, have the oil on medium or medium-low heat and make sure it doesn’t smoke. It will get hot enough soon enough. Olive oil has a high smoke point, too. Use canola for a better shot. Then work quickly and serve immediately.

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Daniela, thank you for the recipe. Next time I’ll do right by it.

And as has become the custom when I foul up, I’m entertaining suggestions on how to remove the burnt oil from the sides of the pan. No, really.

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Pouting.

*I’m sure there’s a more scientific or at the very least educated way of describing this. It will not be found on this blog.

**Didn’t use sparkling because I don’t like it as a drink, and didn’t want to waste it. Same goes for beer. If any of you make the recipe Daniela’s way, please write in and let me know how it tastes. I’m curious.

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‘A few trifles’ is a quote from the stage drama Little Women, and the food you see here is what I made for the show, which is going on all this month in Holmdel, NJ. As prop goddess, it’s my job to rent, buy or make (not to mention schlep, maintain and track down from actors) everything that’s brought on and off stage. I often have to provide real (what we call ‘practical’) food for shows that call for actors to eat on stage. But the director for this production decided all of the Christmas Day treats that old Mr. Laurence next door sends over to the March family will be impractical—just for looks. I’m a stickler for authenticity on stage, and the theatre space is small, with the audience just feet away from the onstage action, so this took some doing.

The script describes the spread: chocolates, ice cream, fruitcake and cream puffs. I thought about buying most of it and polyurethaning the crap out of it so it would last the run of the show (and so the actors and mice wouldn’t eat it).* But I couldn’t find puffs that weren’t already filled with cream (which would spoil); fruitcake is tough to find in April; and ice cream wouldn’t survive beyond Act I Scene I.

Plan B, which I went with, was to make a bunch of homemade play dough and form it the way I do marzipan. Click on the photos to take a better look. This is my first go with shaping play dough for stage. Everything pictured here, except for the holly sprig on the cake, is made of play dough.

To make it: I combined 3 cups flour, 1.5 cups salt, and 6 teaspoons cream of tartar in one bowl and 3 cups water and 1/3 cup cooking oil in another. You can also add food coloring to the liquid. Then I added dry and liquid together and poured it into a heavy-bottomed pan over medium low heat. I stirred frequently until the mixture got thick and rubbery and lost its sheen. Then I took it off the heat to cool. Once it is, you can shape it into anything you want. Here’s what I did.

For the chocolates in the top tier of the epergne above: I shaped quarter-sized balls, flattened them, and let them dry out for a few days. Then I painted them with brown acrylic** paint and let that dry. I topped them with white acrylic paint in peaks, as if it were buttercream. Once that was dry, I covered them with polyurethane.

For the cream puffs: I shaped balls about 2″ in diameter and topped them with balls about 1″ in diameter, which looks very much the way choux pastry looks when piped, before it’s baked. Then I brushed on acrylic wood polish with a very light hand—just so they’d look slightly browned—and poly’ed them. Since the play dough wasn’t dried out beforehand, when I poly’ed them they cracked a bit. It makes them look like authentic puffs.

For the fruitcake, shown above (sliced) and below: I wanted to model it after Traditional English Fruitcake, which I imagined was a holiday favorite of Mr. Laurence, and one he wanted to share with his neighbors. First I kneaded in edible brown gel paste from my candy supply basket. But once it dried, it turned a disagreeable, asteroidlike shade of brownish green. On went the brown paint and then poly, the latter of which gave the cake an appealing gloss that made it look moist, buttery and alcohol soaked. I sliced it with a serrated knife.

I made a real fruitcake last Christmas, and iced and decorated it in the style of the south of England. For this one, I decorated it in the northern style—very simply, with bits of play dough shaped to suggest sliced almonds, lightly wood stained so they’d look toasted, and I scattered them around the edges. A sprig of holly was inserted into the middle, and I replace it with a fresh one each weekend.

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For the ice cream:  The show takes place in New England in the 1860s, before vanilla was the common flavoring it is today. Lemon was common, though. Let’s call the below lemon.

To give it a realistic effect, I used an ice cream scooper to scoop the soft play dough into the bowl. I chose a silver one which had a frosted-over look, suggesting the ice cream was creating condensation on the outside of the bowl. Then, while still soft, I covered it with lots of poly. Like the puffs, this made it crack a bit on top and gave it a subtly iced-over look, and the extra poly made it appear slick and slightly melting.

Good times.

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*Bit of an editorial there, especially the choice to put actors before mice; actors show far less discretion. When I propped Chekov’s Three Sisters in college, I had to provide a huge platter of impractical pastries for one scene. I bought real ones, and the actors nibbled at it like stoners until I was forced to shellac it. Even then I still needed to post a sign telling them to keep their sticky paws off it. Though I quite, QUITE relished hearing the occasional ‘Bleah! Goddammit!’ from actors who either weren’t literate or thought the sign was a joke.

**This is latex, or water-based paint—my favorite. Oil-based paint is nice and shiny, but it takes longer to dry, is more of a hassle because you need to buy turpentine, a solvent, to clean your paintbrush, and until it dries your house smells like a Sunoco station.

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Skimming through my 1924 Hallowe’en party book (written back when they still threw in the apostrophe), I’m struck by all of the activities people did by hand. The book offers hosts and hostesses ideas such as cracking whole walnuts, removing the nuts within, slipping a fortune inside and gluing the shell back together; making homemade cakes and hiding more fortunes within; and setting up tubs for apple bobbing. Water, paper, mud, flour, paste—all are liberally applied in the projects provided. It’s clear the author assumed people would put their hands in stuff and think little of it.

I’m also amazed at how fearless it seems earlier generations were. In 1924—long before the advent of the Sharpie marker—instructions direct hostesses to heat the point of a knitting needle over hot coals and burn it into walnut shells to make facial features; to poise chestnuts at the tips of knives, then give to children to hold during relay races; to bob for apples with no worry for germs (the biggest risk, it seems, was spoiling your hairdo); and to douse cattails in kerosene and set them on fire, as makeshift torches.

The drawing above is on the cover of the book I mention. The little girl stands on a chair so she can reach to scoop the inside of a pumpkin. She’s five or six at best, but no adult is standing behind her to make sure she doesn’t fall. And the boy—eight? nine?—wields a chef’s knife bigger than the one in my kitchen; and again, adults are conspicuously absent.

The Little House books, which recall everyday life in the late 1800s, similarly depict an ease with skills—again, from a very early age—that may surprise us. Here is little Laura chopping vegetables alongside her mother over a primitive stove, there is her five-year-old sister Mary stitching on her nine-patch quilt. With a real needle. I used to work in nursery schools, and any project that required stitching was done with a large, plastic, dull-tipped ‘needle’. And even so, we teachers supervised at every moment.

It’s fascinating to me that earlier generations took hands-on skills for granted. I don’t support helicopter moms who scamper after their kids all day long with mini bottles of Purell, but neither would I let a child of today use a sharp needle, let alone handle a knife or hold a lit torch. I wouldn’t let a child take food out of a hot oven, or cook over a hot stove top. But apparently it’s a modern-day phobia.

A chicken and egg conundrum comes to mind: Were people a few generations ago braver than we are today? Or did handling knives and needles and fire on a regular basis make them braver, just by cultivating confidence in their ability to use tools and to harness elements safely and effectively?

Let’s take it a step further. Looking around at where we are today, ever in pursuit of the faster, the shinier, the more advanced, have we lost pertinent skills?

With a few exceptions, we tend to buy our quilts today. Meals often mean microwaving or eating takeout. Not many prepare party foods from scratch, opting instead to cater some or all of it. Does the average person know how to slice an onion anymore? Does it even matter?

I posed this question to a friend who both cooks and thoroughly enjoys his gadgets. He said some skills are worth more than others, and one could argue that it matters more to know the ins and outs of technology rather than kitchen skills. If you really needed something chopped, you could hire someone to do it or (increasingly) buy it already prepared.

Most of us in the modern world need to know how to operate cell phones and work laptops, as those before us knew and used skills that were essential for their time. I’m all for any technology that brings people and ideas closer together.*

I guess I’m just wondering if forgetting how to sew on a button by hand or how to slice an onion is worth what we’ve otherwise gained. I’m a cook and an artist, so my hands are everything. I’m compelled to get my hands dirty to access a personal, almost primitive power that makes me feel more human. But that’s one person’s take.

What’s yours?

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*Recently set myself up on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/mcproco/) and Twitter (@evesapple7).  Come play!

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Helpful tip to nighttime travellers to Bora Bora: Be smarter than we were and bring a pocket Mag flashlight, because the porters schlep all of the 80 some-odd suitcases from the ferry on bunch of metal dollies, then unceremoniously dump them onto the dock and walk away. Without light you’ll be climbing blind with everyone else through the heap as if looking for your kid among a group of refugees; and even though yours is wearing an orange ribbon, so are 17 others, so good luck with that.

Kind of a dubious start to the last leg of the vacation, but unlike Taha’a, where we’d just left, the weather the next day was warmer and the sky sunny. Good omen—and, turned out, an accurate one.

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Bougainvillea in the morning light.

I had begun this voyage feeling pretty ragged, physically and mentally, the result of years of sickness (and sick of being sick). Bora Bora was the point underneath the pushpin of this whole nutty idea I had to span half the planet. I wanted to absorb that elusive je ne sais quoi, that whatever it was I needed, body and soul, from the blue water I had heard about. I started stitching my wounds back on Mo’orea, in the ray water, and I finished here. I wasn’t 100% healed, but I felt as though what needed attending, what needed dressing, had been. It’s been said that sometimes healing comes from unexpected people, places and things. This felt like a beneficent conspiracy between my psyche (overwhelmed, exhausted, but apparently still intuitive) and these islands. Why this blue, why these islands? Who knows? More to the point, who cares? It worked.

These pictures come pretty close to doing the color of the water justice, and I’m grateful, because I really wanted you to see what I saw. It’s a profound, otherworldly blue. I live on the NJ coast, just 3.5 blocks to the ocean. But the Atlantic is like McEnroe—he’s fantastic, but in the front of your mind is always, always the knowledge that he could flatten you at any second.

In contrast, the coral reefs that surround French Polynesia prevent anything more than low tide-sized waves. They lap against the white sand all day long, like a friendly Shih-Tzu, drawing you in. When you do, when you stand out in the middle of the water, you don’t have to fight it. It accommodates you, this astonishingly clear aquamarine color rippling around your waist. You can look straight down to the ocean floor at your feet, at shells, and at any errant, vibrantly colored fish.

Click on this shot…lean toward your space heater (what I’m doing right now as I type this) and get your feet wet with me.

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Below is a good shot of the stripey water. It announces the water’s depth: the darker, the deeper.

Hammock, Novotel Bora Bora

At the Novotel Bora Bora Hotel, looking out to sea over one of those groovy infinity pools.

We visited these islands in the austral winter, in late May-early June. ‘Windswept’ is the best way to describe Bora Bora’s Neverland-like dreaminess, and this image illustrates it well.

Windy day, Bora Bora

Some self-important travellers call this island ‘Bora Boring’. I’ll grant that you do more or less have to be a water/watersport person, or a content-to-lie-on-the-beach person, or a deep-pocketed person who can afford the 4×4 tours that take you into the heart of the island to see maraes and World War II cannons. Nightlife is zipola. There’s not much of a town to speak of. We spent most of the travel kitty on the motu picnic back on Mo’orea, so doing anything pricey here was out of the question.

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Excuse me, but why isn’t US currency so awesome looking?

But I say more or less because we really were happy just to wander. Each morning we walked along the only traversable road, the one that encircles the island, about a mile away from the hotel. For breakfast we ate wonderful croissants, slices of fresh baguette and local fruit and drank mango juice. Once, on our way back to the hotel, we took the beach instead of the road and looked for shells. Another day we took a walk into town and bought a little sack of vanilla beans and a couple of necklaces from a lady under an awning. Turns out the island attitude as well as the water had soaked into us, and that attitude’s name is RELAX.

Local color, Bora Bora

Local color.

When I remember Bora Bora, I think of vignettes, little freeze frames that reveal the unique flavor of the place.

I think of a little boy, about five years old, getting into his mom’s car. All he was wearing was a grin—not even shoes—and he was what my own mom would call brown as a berry. Going around starkers in public is something I will obviously never experience, but with my fair complexion, neither will I know the freedom of never having to wear sunblock. Every day of my life I wear it, and always will. I envied him.

I think of a stray dog we saw on the street one day, standing in a deep puddle, looking into it and wagging furiously. There must have been a fish or a crab in the water, and he was totally entertained, just walking back and forth with his muddy paws, trying to anticipate where whatever it was would go next. It was adorable. And I think of another stray dog on the beach, barking and wagging at a woman. Turns out she was throwing a small coconut into the water and he was retrieving it, over and over.

I think of the local guys zipping around on mopeds, doing stunts that would have driven Evel Knievel to take up stamp collecting. First they’d peel out down the road, then they’d do wheelies, and then they’d stand on their seats at the same time. One guy after another. No helmets. Laughing. I kept wondering if I was destined to remember Bora Bora as the island where I saw a man die right in front of me. Thankfully it never happened. Never, either, did I see cops or law enforcement of any kind. The attitude on Bora Bora is not just RELAX but also laissez faire.*

And I think of the food. Some of it is meh (like pizza crust, predictably frozen), but pizza toppings were always good. The Mai Tai Polynesia Hotel had a pie covered with ham and hot, fresh chunks of sweet local pineapple. For dessert we had their delicious banana tatin with a dip of vanilla ice cream.**

Baguettes in grocery store, Bora Bora

Baguettes for the taking in the local supermarche.

One place we frequented for dinner had lousy service (Michael likened it to our 1998 Orlando, FL visit to a Waffle House, which shared its philosophy: ‘Committed to getting you the hell out of here as quickly as possible’) but we kept going to La Bounty because their chocolate cake was outrageous. Dense, creamy, flourless, topped with hot fudge and chopped almonds and pistachios. And it was warm. And it came with a little pitcher full of creme anglaise, because if you’re eating this cake anyway, why just dip your toes in when you could be swimming in happiness?

I sound like I’m exaggerating. I’m not. The island was settled by the FRENCH.

One place we went to was a certified home run—food, service, atmosphere—and that place was Bloody Mary’s.

A board outside showcased all of the famous people who have eaten there. And this guy was right outside the door. At night he gets spotlighted in green.

Tiki, Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Bloody Mary’s has sand for a floor and lacquered wooden tables and stools. They also have an incredible cheeseburger, appropriately named ‘The Jimmy Buffett’, and equally incredible local coconut ice cream.

Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Wooden stool, Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Cool close-up.

We had the place to ourselves for the most part until an inevitable feral cat wandered in, as laissez faire as management. He was quiet, but effectively communicated his opinion on the best place for cheeseburgers.

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Pigs. Share.

As enjoyable as the food at Bloody Mary’s was, the bathrooms were even better. The one for les femmes was outfitted with a sink made of pebbles that went right up the wall. No taps. When you pulled a chain from the ceiling, after a beat, water trickled down in a wide stream from the top pebbles into a basin in the center. This thing KILLED me.

Pour les hommes: Well…I’m told the urinal featured a phallic flush pull-chain.

Hanging at home on my wall I have a vintage printer’s rack in which I display rocks from famous and unforgettable places all over the world. From this trip I have a rock from the water beneath our bungalow on Mo’orea, a lava stone from a marae on Raiatea, and a cement-like rock from the garden in the bathroom at Bloody Mary’s. Sentimental sap, me.

Leaving Bora Bora

*Something I forgot to tell you that further proves this point: In our room at the Club Bali Ha’i on Mo’orea, on the wall was a framed letter which in very polite language stated something along the lines of, ‘We realize there may be uneven stepping stones on some of the paths here, or there may be some overhanging branches over others, or that your room walls and floors may have exposed pipes, etc. Please take into consideration that what is construed as dangerous where you are from (most visitors to Tahiti are Americans, Australians or Japanese), it is not necessarily construed as dangerous to islanders. Please try to relax and have a good time.’

**French Polynesia does way better with restaurant desserts than the US. They not only taste better, but they’re a better value. A basic US restaurant will want $7 or more for their desserts, and in my experience, more often than not, it’s a sugary, chemical-laden, very recently boxed and frozen little sliver of something onto which is piled cheap ice cream and pretend whipped cream. Your gracious restaurant hosts are betting you will be too impressed/distracted by this quaking, amorphous blob to notice that they’re stiffing you and giggling about it in the kitchen. On these islands, for all we knew they might have served us some frozen desserts. But even if they were, they were bloody good quality, and for the equivalent of $7 or so you got a lot for your money.

By the way, if you are very reasonably wondering why I haven’t posted any pictures of the food we ate on this trip, it’s because we took the trip when I was not yet a food writer. Being a lifelong writer and a lifelong, rabid foodie, though, I took copious notes about WHAT we ate. Thank goodness.

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January’s been typecast as cold, gloomy and bleak as a dungeon. Well, it earns every adjective. Time for an imagination vacation.

In 2008, after several years of being almost totally debilitated from stress, images of Bora Bora kept popping into my head. To put an even finer point on it, I was dreaming of the color I imagined the water to be—turquoise blue, impossibly beautiful. This color became a nearly all-encompassing obsession; I didn’t just need to see it, I needed to rub it into my skin like lotion, I needed to let its essence sink into and saturate my very bones. Lucky for me, at the time I was married to Michael, a guy who was game for anything. We figured we were exhausted already—me from being sick and him from taking care of me—and in need a change of scenery, so why not travel halfway across the world?

We packed two small rolling suitcases, a backpack full of food for the trip out, and a camera. Then we walked to the train station a couple of blocks away in our little beach town and ended up in an archipelago in the South Seas. Six and change hours from Newark Airport to LAX, then nearly 8.5 hours to Papeete, in Tahiti. From there, we would puddle jump to Mo’orea, then to Raiatea and Taha’a, then end on Bora Bora. We decided to see the other islands when we learned they offered black pearl farms, vanilla plantations, jungles and astonishing beauty. If we were going to take the trip, we wanted to see it all. Two weeks, five islands, and nearly 48 hours of that time crossing a continent and the huge bucket of water called the Pacific.

Why would anyone do this, especially in the shape I was in at the time? I can’t explain it better than this: I was desperately hungry for that blue. I still don’t really know why. I knew the whole idea sounded crazy. (Our arrival at the airport in Papeete did a lot to confirm this: We were greeted at 5a by two mildly hysterical guys playing tiny guitars.) But we did it anyway.

Very happy to report that I did find my blue; and as is so often the case, I found a lot more on the way. You know me well enough to know where I’m going with this, right? (Vague hint: Boy howdy, did I eat well.)

First…Mo’orea.

View of Moorea from plane

View from the window of the six-seat plane, a ten-minute flight from Tahiti.

The thing about culture shock is sometimes it’s a good thing. Both Tahitian men and women go about their daily lives with a little flower like the one below tucked behind one ear. No one thinks of it as a female thing. No one questions the men’s sexual orientation. It occurred to me on the first day in French Polynesia that any meaning people assign to flowers, or colors, or clothes, or anything else is subjective and arbitrary. And it also occurred to me that when offered the chance to cast off the assignations we happen to have been taught, it’s quite liberating.

Tahitian gardenia, Raiatea

Tahitian gardenia–delicate, fragrant, and tasty, too. Stay tuned.

The natives there move slowly, laugh heartily, and don’t seem to worry about anything. They also have a charming way of speaking. They don’t just say ‘Iaorana’ (ya-RAH-na, with a little roll on that r) as a hello or ‘Mauruuru’ (ma-RU-ru, same little r roll) as a thank-you. They singsong it: ‘Iao-RA-naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…mau-RU-ruuuuuuuuuuuuuu.’  It takes a long time for them to finish talking but it’s a lot of fun to listen to. And it forces you to slow down.

We stayed at Club Bali Ha’i, near Cook’s Bay. Our bungalow had the coolest 2×2 foot window in the floor so you could see fish swimming underneath. It even had a light so you could watch at night! But the camera didn’t get the full effect. Bummer.

No TV, or clock, or phone in the rooms. If you needed something from the desk, you walked there. But you had to do it before something like 10 at night because Georgina at the front desk went home.

This was the view from our deck, late one afternoon.

Late afternoon, Moorea

The little hotel restaurant, the Blue Pineapple, served fruit platters made with local bananas, pineapple, papaya and watermelon along with wonderful grilled tuna (what they call ‘lagoon fish’). But one evening we took a half mile walk along the road that encircles the island and found a little roadside place that served pizza so good that we went back every day. Yeah, I know, the idea of any pizza, let alone good pizza, in French Polynesia is a nutty idea. And let me further impress upon you that it was a shack, just a counter—no bigger than the french fry deals on the NJ boardwalk. But what a shack.

The place was called Allo Pizza, the French-speaking kid who worked there was maybe 19, they had no real refrigeration and by all rights we should have died from ingesting some evil microscopic, Pacific Island, singsonging, flower-wearing organism, but their pizza was so incredible that it nearly made me weep. I should have taken a picture—forgive me—but I’ll tell you my favorite was Le Marseillaise, topped with fresh tuna, chopped capers, tomato sauce, garlic, herbes de Provence, Parmesan and anchovy.

Incidentally, when I say fresh tuna, I don’t just mean it was local. I mean the Allo Pizza shack was across the narrow street from the beach, where fishermen would hang their catch from a makeshift rack and wait. Over the course of the day, people would drive by, choose one of their enormous fish, pay and drive off. The Allo kid did this too. The distance was about the same as you going out your front door and down the driveway. Fresh tuna. Fresh fresh.

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Waiting for a buyer.

One night we tried Allo’s homemade chocolate mousse. Who would eat chocolate mousse served on a dusty road from a pizza shack on a sandy dot in the middle of the Pacific? Us. They don’t call it French Polynesia for nothing. It was perfect.

Cats have a rep for sleeping most of the day no matter where they live. But on these islands they go for the gold. The kitty below, who hung around our deck, is not dead. He is doing what he was born to do: beg for leftover bits of anchovy from my pizza, and summarily pass out for the rest of the day.

Cat, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One of the selling points of Mo’orea was their swimming-with-sharks expeditions. (This is a part of the crazy that I didn’t tell you earlier. We read that you go out for the day on a small boat and jump out–as into the water—to see reef sharks and other fish. The sharks have no history of attacking anyone. Of course no one ever asked a shark to sign an affadavit swearing he had never attacked anyone, but we took the people offering the trip at their word and signed up. The organizers have such confidence that no one will die at the viselike jaws of a shark that they don’t even call it a swimming-with-sharks expedition. They call it a ‘motu picnic’, a motu being an uninhabited island, and one on which we’d eat when we were through.)

The itinerary read, ‘it includes visit of our 2 bays, fish, shark & ray feeding, snorkelling, barbecue on one of our nicest islet of Moorea…rice & pasta salad, fish, chicken, fruits, bread, rhum maitai, beer, juice, water and a coconut show with a lot of time for snorkelling and relaxing!’ So apparently no one dies. Look at all the food you get when you’re done hyperventilating!

Actually, for some reason I was not worried at all. I was stoked, beyond excited. Saw the first dorsal fin and yelled ‘shark!’, cueing Bruno, grinning host, to open his cooler full of lagoon fish and start hacking off pieces to throw to the hungries. He threw it at a distance, while we were to jump, snorkels and cameras at the ready, maybe 10 feet away.

They suggest jumping in as soon as possible ‘before you lose your nerve,’ they said (or if you didn’t leave logic back at the hotel). Michael ducked underwater, came back up and I asked him what it was like. He said, ‘Absolutely f***ing amazing!’

It was.

Reef sharks, Moorea

Zillions of kinds of colored fish, maybe a dozen sharks—it was like being inside an aquarium. I was never afraid. Don’t know why. Sometimes a shark would swim my way, face first, and come within maybe five feet of me. Then it was a little unnerving, but that’s all. They always turned around to eat the cut-up fish.

By the way, that set of legs and fins in the photo belongs to a kid who actually swam among the frenzy, shooting the video which you could buy later. Mhm.

Next we sailed to a shallower area and jumped out to wait for the rays. Before we left we were assured that the type we’d meet were not the type that killed naturalist Steve Irwin, that these did not have stingers. (Similarly, it’s not as if they had a list of rays that had registered to stop by, but we believed them. And they were right.)

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He looks menacing, but they were very friendly—too friendly sometimes, like a yellow lab that’s just rolled in something gross and can’t wait to tell you all about it. You fed them bits of fish from your fist, but you had to be sure to tuck your thumb inside your fist or they’d try to slurp up your thumb. Enormous, some of them, several feet across.

Here I am in ray water, only about four feet deep, and clear as glass. In the travel journal I wrote, ‘It was a huge feeling of blueness.’

I found it.

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This is the view right over my head of the sky and a Pacific tern enjoying his day….

Pacific tern, Moorea

…and the view from the beautiful motu where we had our picnic.

Motu, Moorea

Here are the guys who were asked to try to crack open a coconut Polynesian style. Not too successful, but they had a good time. (Eventually Bruno got the coconuts open, shredded some of it, tossed it in the air and yelled, ‘Tahitian snow!’)

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Bali Ha’i, shot from the boat on the way back…the real deal.

Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One day we drove the circumference of the island, marvelling at the spectacular mountain peaks, turquoise and cobalt striped water, and palm trees grouped as densely as forests…

Coconut palms, Moorea

…and eating. Les Antipodes (Restaurant Creperie) served savory and sweet crepes. ‘La Chicken’ was outstanding, chicken in a white wine/bechamel sauce, as was a crepe with hot pineapple and caramel. Polynesian + French influences coming together, and it was inspired.

Carameline’s, a little bakery you’d miss if you sneezed, served banana and pineapple pastries with a buttery, buttery, tender crumb.

We passed a lot of the enlongated mailbox-looking units below and asked a passerby what they were. Can you imagine?….They’re baguette boxes. Baguette eating is such a way of life on these islands now, a ritual picked up from the French newcomers, that many have it delivered daily the way we have mail, and the way we used to have milk, delivered.

Baguette box, Haapiti, Moorea

One afternoon we hiked in the jungle at the center of Mo’orea and saw moss-covered rocks, marae (places of ancient worship), sinewy tree trunks…and chickens. I’ve noticed wild chickens love the tropics. We trekked deeper and deeper into the heart of the jungle before turning around. Here I got nervous. This wasn’t a Monmouth County, NJ park near a major highway; it was about as remote a place as you can possibly get. And the deeper you went, the darker it got. Before we left I took this shot of a leaf in a shaft of sunlight.

Leaf in sunlight, Marae site, Moorea

On our way back, we stopped at the Lycée Agricole (Farming School) where the students there make the most delicious things from what they grow, using nothing artificial. Went delirious over their homemade pineapple/soursop (cherimoya) juice and very kicky citron sorbet. Another day we went back and had (below) three scoops of the most exquisite ice cream I have ever tasted: vanilla, gardenia (yes) and banana…all from local fruits and flowers.

I’ll talk more about vanilla when I post about Raiatea and Taha’a, but in my journal I called the banana (there it is on top) ‘an avalanche of banana!’ And the gardenia is hard to describe—lovely, floral (of course), and very strange, but in a good way. What can I say. Gardenia ice cream.

Ice cream, Lycee Agricole, Moorea

Back at Club Bali Ha’i they kept us entertained. At 5:30 almost every night one of the owners, Jay, a thin, wiry, extremely friendly guy, came out for the very casual Happy Hour. Originally from from Long Island, he and his partner Muk Mc Cullum—‘The Bali Ha’i Boys’—came here in the 1950s with plans to become vanilla plantation owners. They became hoteliers instead, inventing the over-the-water bungalows and having a really, really good time. He drank two little bottles of tequila and told us about the early days, when he and Muk spent much of their time here ‘H & H’ (hammered and happy). At 77, I asked if he had any regrets. He said, ‘Regrets? Yeah, I have a few. I regret that I didn’t come out here a decade sooner.’

On Monday nights, if no one shows up to the crab races in the lobby by 6, one of the employees walks around the grounds with an empty crab bucket and bangs on it and yells, ‘Crab race-eeeees! Crab race-eeeees!’

Crab races, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

It’s raucous and silly but really fun, even though we lost every race—300 francs, about $4. The crab bucket guy goes and finds crabs for the races, which is easy because on Mo’orea they are everywhere, the way squirrels are for us—on the beach, yes, but on the grass, along the sides of the roads, everywhere. He writes numbers on their backs in chalk and people place their bets. If we spent too much time hemming and hawing, he’d call out ‘hava-TEEEEEE! hava-TEEEEEE!’ (‘hurry up!’).

I learned the way to pick up a crab and not get pinched: You put your fingers on their backs between their pincers and their back claws. They can’t turn their pincers around, so you’re set. (Full disclosure: the guy asked me to pick one up but I refused. What a chicken. I’ll swim with sharks but I won’t bloody pick up a crab? That’s it. I’m going back to do it. 🙂 )

I saw these hibiscus on a windy evening, and had to chase them to shoot them. They were really beautiful.

Fallen hibiscus, Moorea

Puddle jumper to Raiatea and Taha’a next week.

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I love to make treats for the casts and crews of my shows, and to give as holiday gifts and thank-yous. 99.44%* of the time people love it. But that itty bitty percentage** left over gets all judgmental on me.

‘How can you make these things knowing there’s such an obesity problem in this country?’ they ask. I’ve even had people ask how I can live with myself, as if baking with butter and sugar is akin to mooning a Gymboree. Here’s my thinking.

Yes, a massive pile of Americans are obese. But they didn’t get that way from having a brownie at a Saturday night barbecue, or a couple of Bubbe’s latkes at Chanukah, or Cadbury eggs on Easter. And goodness knows I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. But I have mambo’ed with weight gain and loss my whole life. As my ninth grade biology teacher said, if you consistently eat more than you burn off, you gain weight. That’s how it works. So with a few exceptions, I’m pretty sure those suffering with serious weight issues got that way from consuming too much, or consuming rich foods too often—foods that are meant to be once-in-a-while treats.

Your Great Anye’s German stollen, that wonderful buttery dried-fruity holiday bread—that’s a treat. You’re not supposed to live on it. It’s a Christmastime joy, along with goodwill and empty parking places. The problem comes when the line between treats and everyday healthy foods becomes so blurred that for breakfast we grab a doughnut made with shortening and fake colored sprinkles instead of scrambled egg whites and whole wheat toast, or for lunch we choose Cool Ranch Doritos instead of a turkey sandwich. Many of us have forgotten the difference, forgotten to be discerning.

And so we get fat, and we judge ourselves and others for it. We forget that eating, like most things in life, is about balance. We’re supposed to make healthy food choices most of the time. And we’re supposed to celebrate with indulgent foods at special times. Yes, supposed to. If we can decide to live by that tenet, maybe we’ll work out this obesity epidemic (or at least come closer to doing so). And I can’t think of a better time than now, holiday time, to emphasize balance in eating.

Please, have some of your mom’s killer lasagna bolognese and your best friend’s oatmeal cookies this holiday season. Just go easy the rest of the time. Get your veggies in there. Drink lots of water. Take care of yourself.

The really good news is when we choose to live this way, choose to eat healthy foods*** most of the time and blow it out a little on the weekends and on holidays, we’ll look forward to those special treats that much more. Remember anticipation? We’ll feel like kids again.

Full disclosure:

1) Last week I overdid it: I drank hot chocolate every single day without fail. Even with 1% milk, that’s a lot. This week I have to do better with balance.

2) I’m totally in the mood to make my mom’s sour cream coffee cake, but it’s something that we kids grew up eating on Christmas morning. I am making myself wait, just like I did last year, and I know I’ll be glad I did.

I’m so excited for that cake. It’s something, like the stollen, that says yesterday is gone, tomorrow is later, and I am living for this flavor, this texture—this luxury—right now. And there’s no crime in that.

*With apologies to Ivory soap. You’re doing a fine job.

**Don’t make me do the math.

***Which doesn’t mean it should taste like a loofah sponge, by the way. Find recipes that use spices, herbs, garlic, the good stuff, and you will not deprive yourself.

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