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* Having Reservations

(As some of you know, I had the opportunity to teach two Native American groups how to cook to save their lives. Here is the second installment of this three-part series on my own education during this experience.)


Having Reservations

The week before class actually began I had a conference call that affected me deeply. One of the discussions centered around what types of foods that were accessible to people on  reservations and in pueblos. Shamefully, I heard Chef Lois utter the most frightening words I have ever heard in my life:

“These people are eating whatever they can find at the quickie mart. There IS no grocery store. There are no restaurants. Whatever is on sale in the chip aisle and soda cooler is whats for dinner.”


I was truly shocked. This was not like rednecks making a monthly one hour pilgrimage to Wal Mart to circle around the outer ring of the store, devotedly worshipping the goods in the center aisles. This was people with access to nothing, a startling reality for thousands of people.

Listening to further conversations and structuring our class menus, I began to gather the knowledge that a reservation is not unlike a third world country within the US. Native people still live on portions of land assigned by the federal government and they are sovereign, not well supported by the outside and primarily left to themselves. Not all people have indoor plumbing and running water. Electricity is not a given. Tribes still raise their income in small ways by selling crafted items and livestock if there is an abundance. The rare wealthy tribe or pueblo has a casino on it and newer cars in driveways nearby.

Creating a menu that people can physically execute with as little as an open fire was an important consideration. Using healthy foods they are familiar with that they will actually eat was another issue. Food variety and actual utilization is a problem for more than the residents of the reservations, as gathered that a good deal of the people leading this study had no comprehension that Indians are not going to eat tofu. Ever. On a historic level, Natives have a strong bond with foods and equate it with medicine. What was surrounding their feet was the pharmacy. Seitan, TVP and Tofurkey were most definitely not on the table at the first Thanksgiving.

So, what the heck happened?


We heard the term ” Indian Reservation” when we were in school once, maybe twice and it was never mentioned ever again. It was something we chose to believe existed way back when and then magically disappeared, like dinosaurs. We paid no mind to what happened to the people involved, they became extinct in our minds and the country forged ahead, or so we thought.

The Reader’s Digest condensed version of what our government did to the people here before us is this: What the Native Americans saw were Puritans falling ill from a multitude of things, and malnutrition being one of them. When they could no longer bear to watch other human beings die as they failed to thrive far from home, the Natives helped bring much-needed plants into their diet and started to reverse the process of diseases like Pellagra. The Puritans thanked them by trying to convert them and giving them fancy new European diseases. Revolts against this unearthly religius crusade led to our forefathers killing them outright or starving them by slaughtering all their bison.

In America’s haste to snatch up areas of tactical, agricultural or political benefit, the government tidied things up by “relocating” some 57 tribes upon America’s unused badlands, taking away their means of survival as they knew it. Coastal tribes like the Seminole people of Florida, accustomed to sea life and fishing for their protein, were plopped down in Oklahoma on the prairie. Picture your dining table set with a bounty of foods from the land and sea, then imagine the tablecloth getting yanked, sending your entire meal floorward.

To not seem like total bastards, the government offered to supply a small amount of food to the people on these reservations. Neither knowing or caring otherwise, foods that were not in their normal food chain entered the Native diet and things slowly went from bad to worse. Gone were the days of grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, freshly hunted and dried meats and fish. In came hollow caloric foods such as sugar, wheat flour, lard, Crisco, canned beef stew, canned whole chickens, dried or canned milk, shelf-stable cheese and powdered eggs. These very spiritual people were supplied with what one would find in a war-era bomb shelter. Today, food little better than what was customarily found on a musty life raft is all these people get from the government to live on. And some of these items can’t even be eaten by Natives…

Cause And Effect

You do the math. When you take out indigenous cuisine and give entire nations of people foods they can’t digest, things start to go awry. Bring in sugar, which acts on dopamine receptors in the brain that equate sugar with opium and a dangerous addiction is born. Add in lard or shortening to a culture that subsisted on sporadically eaten lean game meats and the body’s plumbing starts to gum up. Remove access to any native grain that the stomach can utilize and substitute it with refined products, and enter diabetes. Add insult to injury and further limit the grocery list if there is no access to a freezer or a can opener breaks.

Commodities.


Here is a list of what foods are commonly available within a hundred mile radius most times: http://www.fns.usda.gov/fdd/foods/fy11-fdpirfoods.pdf As you look at this list, keep in mind that the year is 2011 and a lot of people have the Whole Foods  smart phone app to make their laborious shopping experience much more pleasurable and convenient.

My Hypocrisy Ends Here


Okay, so, I have to fess up. Not only did I not wear my “Praise The Lard” tee shirt to class the first night, but I indeed listened to the doctor who wrote the book and did the studies on this diet. As a student and teacher, I soaked in the information in order to better support the patients in the class who had come to heal themselves. As a former clinician who has spent time in the trenches of a hemodialysis unit, in OR’s installing catheters and renal fistulas or grafts and removing dead body parts from diabetic extremities, I found most of the information logical and well supported by the AMA.

 

As a daughter of a mother who is now facing her own renal failure from diabetes, I swore long ago to break the chain of the disease on my own behalf and not make the same mistakes in self-care that my mother and grandfather made. Partly out of desire to stay healthy for my husband and partly to be respectful to my students, I chose to go on the bandwagon.

My journey was not that painful in the beginning as I had thought. Once I heard “Eat all the carbs you want, just make them whole grains!”, I awoke the beast within that is called, “Riceaholic”. Humming giddily past the meat counter full of elk, bison, turkey, filet mignon and rib eye steaks, I pretty much went gaily cavorting about in the bulk bin section, resisting the urge to run my fingers through vats of grainy goodness on the sly, a la’ Amelie. I felt very, very baaaaaaad and hoped my Endocrinologist was going to be as happy as I was at lab draw time.

I dutifully packed foods for myself when Brian and I would take our weekend road trips. I shared my thoughts and ideas with the students in class, as I was living the life along with them. I learned to saute’ with bean cooking liquid instead of fats. I diverted myself from dairy and craved anything made with coconut milk. I sprouted jars full of fresh beans like Jack in the fairy tale. I went whole-hogless, with the exception being the one week around Thanksgiving at my In-Laws’ house. I took the Bourdain approach, choosing to not insult my in-laws, who do their best to put up with me demolishing their kitchen every visit and grilling meat like pros.  Otherwise, I did the deed, even managing to eat out smartly for the class duration, and even afterwards.

The funny thing was, the only question from the managing group that they seemed to be enthusiastically concerned with was this:

“Do you feel any better?”


( Look to the third and final posting on this series for the answer…)

 

I am reasonably sure that nearly every time I get an exciting idea and share it, people around me mentally buckle their seatbelts and desperately attempt to locate the nearest exit row. This culinary adventure is no different.

When we moved to NM this summer, my intention was to somehow get involved with Native American cuisine- to find out what it was, what its applications were, learn about the medicine within and to shake the hands that made it. Most people back in Oregon politely nodded their heads, took me as my usual nutbag self and wished me luck, half wondering if people spoke English in New Mexico or not.

Before leaving Oregon, I signed up for a Native American cooking class at the studio of a Santa Fe chef. With a house only halfway unpacked, I drove out to the desert and found myself with a handful of other participants around a gorgeous table and some totally non-Oregon foods. During the lecture portion of the class, I sat up and took notice when the chef explained that she was an ethnobotany instructor at a nearby American Indian college and her next project was centered around helping the local tribes return to indigenous cuisine and eliminating diabetes along the way. As someone with a family history with this disease, both Type 1 and 2, and having a medical interest in management and care of this process, my radar went red line. I begged to be a part of the program. And so it began, my entrance into the Native American culinary world.

A friend from school and I were chatting about the presence of opportunities in life and having the right doors open at the right time. I mentioned the situation and he stated, “You have very big doors”. Considering that I knew only one soul in town before the move and the next two total strangers I met become my work colleagues, I have to totally agree with my buddy on this one. Less than one week after we moved, I stumbled upon the very subject I’d hoped to learn more about.

My Colleagues, Lois and Walter

The Kiowa chef is half Sephardic Jewish. Let me give you a moment to process that combination.

Lois comes from New York and was raised with the influence of both her parents equally. This is a total gas for me, as she represents another facet of my own heritage, which is  Ashkenazi. She has the familiarity of region and multi-ethnic areas that I have, but she has a more diverse culinary palate with influences from Spain and warmer climates beyond. The flavors of both styles of Jewish cooking are complete contrasts and they come together when we bat ideas around. Through her I have learned volumes about the Native American condition in the modern day, and have realized that the surface has only barely been scratched. The woman is very passionate about honor and respect for both communities, is active in both and has a beautiful loyalty to tribal people of all kinds (Hey, my Jewish Homies- Can you name all twelve of our tribes off the top of your head?).

I learned by way of the Navajo chef in the partnership that his interest in cooking was taken as very odd by the elders. Although his success has made him a local celeb with the Grandmas, they were initially very, very concerned about him from a “preference” standpoint. In the Native society, matriarchs rule the cook fires and having a man in the kitchen is, to say the least, not “right”. Thanks to things like Food Network and his returning to the reservation instead of going Hollywood, he is now their favorite son. With this class, he is showing them another method to honor their ways with healthier versions of familiar foods and bringing medicine to their bodies. If I were to make a comparison, Walter is now the equivalent of “a nice Jewish docta”, and every grandma on the reservation is ga-ga over him.

The Facts

The classes we are teaching are designed to take people back to the foods that are indigenous. The main catch? It’s all plant based and extremely low fat. With a well documented study that the root of all evil, AKA, Diabetes, lies in the presence of intramyocellular lipids (fats stored in the muscle cells). The drastic reduction of fat intake in the diet forces the body to use the stores as energy. These stores are such things as the cupcakes over your jeans, the spare tire over your belt, the marbled foie gras you call your liver and so on. The burning of internal fat leads to lowered blood sugars, the reduction of the Hemoglobin A1C level (a report of how the blood sugar has averaged over a three-month period) and results in the lessened or eliminated need for Metformin, a drug that stabilizes blood sugars artificially.

 

With the reduction of body fat and leveling out of blood sugar, the pancreas and liver get back control of themselves, producing enough glucose and insulin at the right times. Without animal protein gumming up the kidneys, the readily digested and available vegetable proteins in beans and grains are utilized at a much higher rate than animal sources. Little waste needs to pass from the kidneys and it does so without consequence. The usual renal damages that result from the combination of a diabetic kidney and animal protein that land a person on dialysis are nearly eliminated, if this lifestyle change protocol is started soon enough.

 

The idea of this program is to get people acting sooner than later. Already, after just a few weeks, people are reporting relief from neuropathy, that debilitating, stabbing pain in the feet and legs that cripples diabetics. Time will tell with blood draws in a few months time just how well each individual person’s compliance has impacted their health. If even one of the students can get off medication completely and stay off it by making the dietary changes permanent, it has been a major victory.

 

The Meat Of The Matter

Okay. You read that this is a plant-based program. Lets not mince words and call it what it really is…  It’s that frightening word VEGAN. Like you, I’ve associate this word with predominantly over-self-aware freaks. Gotta admit that I side with Bourdain on this one to a major degree. The other side of the coin? Know that I do have to somewhat agree with the animal protection side of it and I feel a little guilty sometimes, but I chose to balance my love of meat and the processing of it by learning how to slaughter humanely. As a conscious effort to respect my food I choose to give thanks to the animal bred for the specific purpose of feeding me, rather than to boycott it altogether. On the other hand, I greatly respect the healthy side of this diet, diabetes being one great reason to adopt it. A food allergy is another serious reason (An allergy, folks, is not one that makes you feel like you have the flu after eating a cracker with brie, it’s when you DIE immediately after you eat the brie).

 

The crap I just can’t deal with a baffling statement such as:  “Using honey demeans the labors of the bee”, “Eating eggs throw off my Chi” or “I only eat foods that have committed suicide by falling to the ground on their own/rotting off the vine”. When you have an entire manifesto embroidered on a hand-woven, fairly traded hemp dinner napkin tied around your neck at the breakfast table, its time to lock yourself up, away from the general public. Don’t freakin’ go out to eat at a restaurant that is not vegan, either. Seriously. The world is NOT going to accommodate you at all times.

Now consider a reservation of Native Americans.

(That blank, empty  cloud of thought over your head is

extremely visible, by the way…)

Here, let me help you a little.  Back in the day, before the whites made contact with the locals, plants were the most prevalent part of the native diet. Cultivation eventually became routine and winter storage kept bellies fed when the ground was frozen and sunshine was not warm enough. Meat and fish was part of the diet, but only after the loss of another living creature in the natural world and only if a hunt was successful. Animal protein, once obtained, was shared with all the people of the community, no matter how big or how small. One bison shared with every belly in the pueblo does not make for nightly steak dinners the likes of what we are accustomed to today. Guess what? Diabetes did not exist in these communities way back when.

Walkin’ The Talk?

When I dropped the bomb to Brian that this was a vegan cooking class, the laughter and side slapping was more or less than what I expected. With the discussion of the details of this adventure, the inevitable question rose, the dreaded challenge of my moral character: “So, are you gonna do the diet, too?”. Do I need to resort to spelling out the actual profanity-filled reply? Can you not imagine all manner of expletive to violently thrust itself between the words “No” and “way”?

I spoke to my chef on the first night of the class and stated that I believed in the cause and would do all I could to support the issue and the medical professionals associated with this new way of life. I agreed to be an integral part of the students’ learning process and to uphold the highest standards of my culinary forefathers, but I stood firm that I truly believe bacon to be Meat Candy and it was non-negotiable in my private home.

As a staff member, I was handed a pile of books with exciting titles like, “Get Healthy! Go Vegan!” (the eye roll was a reflex that I hoped nobody noticed), and “Reversing Diabetes” (more curious to me, considering my background) and I assumed I was supposed to read them, throw on a “Fur Is Dead” shirt, stop shaving my armpits and be happy about things like Tofurkey. I shoved the books into a pile on my nightstand that evening and let the books take up space for a few days. This was definitely gonna be an interesting 8 weeks…

 

Winter is rumored to have just arrived. With a teasing of light snow on the mountain tops late last week and howling wind today, the mercury is taking the first real nosedive of the season. Its not even Halloween yet.  Time to fight back with a can crock pot of Whupp-Ass!

A friend asked for a crock pot recipe and I really wanted to get her something fairly easy that would not require Valium training wheels or a culinary degree to pull off. And it had to not suck. Taking a cue from my current cooking class curriculum, I came up with this belly pleaser.

I particularly like how the bay leaves play off the vanilla (Ever really smell a fresh bay leaf? It smells like eggnog. No shit!) and how the maple syrup brings up the squash just a little more than the fruit or even the stock aroma.

 

1 butternut squash*, about 3 lbs

1 large or two small Jonagold apples, peeled and grated

1 large red Cascade pear, grated, skin left on

1/3 cup Pinot Grigio

4 cups vegetable stock*, unsalted, hot

3-4 tablespoons real, dark maple syrup

2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste (or 1 tablespoon pure extract)

1/4 cup plain almond milk (or half and half)

2 bay leaves

Black pepper and kosher salt to taste



First thing in the morning, heat up a crock pot to HIGH. Place grated apple and pear in the pot and add the wine. Cover the pot and let it come to a nice bubbly boil. Stir once to blend the ingredients and continue to cook for 3-4 hours, until the mixture is a light caramel brown and slightly thick. It should taste fantastic. Remove and keep crock pot hot.
Around lunchtime, heat oven to 350, cut the squash in half, scoop out seeds and place cut side down on a sprayed baking pan. Bake until squash is soft, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool before scooping flesh from the skin.
Run the fruit through the food processor and if you want to avoid the grit from the pears, run the puree through a strainer (You’ll thank me). Put the puree back into the crockpot. Puree the squash and add it to the crock pot. Mix in three cups of stock or more, to the texture you like. Add bay leaves, vanilla bean paste, pepper, about a teaspoon of kosher salt and 3 tablespoons of maple syrup. Let this simmer on high for another hour until the bay is infused into the soup.

Before serving, add a bit of almond milk or half and half to the soup- a little at a time. Adjust your salt and maple syrup levels after you add extra liquid. Be judicious with the dairy fat, though, it will totally dumb down all the delicate flavors if you add more than a few tablespoons, and you will have to fight to re-balance it.
Best by the mugful with a warm dog on your feet. Serves4-6 people, its vegan and really low fat (should you give a rip about that sort of thing) if you bag the half and half .

*Alternatives:

You can use 2- 15 ounce cans of pumpkin puree if you are pressed for time. It will need a bit more sweetening up and I recommend using Agave nectar for a light touch.

You might also find apple and pear sauces at the grocery, but they still need to be caramelized. To cheat, grab a jar of Knudsen’s apple butter (use half the small jar) and a can of Goya pear nectar. I’d still strain the pear nectar, though. That stuff is gritty like a litter box.

I have a new fascination with Trader Joes’ Low Sodium Vegetable Stock packets. It beats wondering what the hell to do with an unfinished box of stock, and it also is good for making up for a half empty box as well. Bear in mind, it will darken your end product, as it is very rich. I do make my own stock, in case you were wondering.

Diary Of A Knifethrower

In the beginning

there was a little girl

with her tongue caught in the electric beaters of a Kitchenaid.

Forty years have passed

and she still has not learned her lesson.

Its time to go back to school!

On December 1, 2008 I donned a new uniform.  No more drawstring pants in an institutional green color. No more masks. No more eye protection. Nor surgical gown. I was issued black striped pants and a crisp, spiffy white chef’s jacket. I did not step into an ice cold, controlled, sterile environment. Every day for a year, I stood in a hot room full of gas flames flickering, clouds of steam and thousands of aroma particles flying through the air. I went to culinary school. Don’t be jealous.

The last ten or more years of my life have been spent throwing knives at to doctors at the start of every surgical procedure. I cannot even attempt to add up the number of cases I have attended in my career. One year I tracked over 1400, and it was only an average year with no extra call shifts at night or on the weekends. I had great command of my environment and skills and I am proud of the job I have done for my patients and surgeons over the years. After the longest days and nights on my feet in surgery, I still turned to standing at the counter, wielding a different kind of knife, trying to shake my adrenalin rush off by preparing a meal. I rarely ran out of energy to do it, even after getting royally slaughtered for 24 straight hours.

I do wonder if this is where I finally see if I was really born to do anything definitive in my life. Do I always wind up in the kitchen because I am incredibly shy, socially retarded and kinda like to use the excuse that I hate awake people? Am I in the kitchen because I have a primal need to be there- like a hardwired prey drive in a wolf?  Am I really any good at it like people say? Will all the pieces fit together and finally make sense for the first time in my life? Is is because I might be only capable of caring for someone safely by feeding them instead of opening my mouth and speaking the wrong words? Could I just be totally fucking tired of medicine and want to get silly with food? Oh yeah. All of it. Believe me.

Roll with me

Here is my year at Oregon Culinary Institute. I hope it entertains the food porn junkie in you.

To enter this part of the site, please grab an adult beverage and click on the Dear Diary entries to the right in the cute little box.

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