Foodbyte #5: Eureka! Wild rice is as easy to make as Rice-A-Roni (and it tastes better, too!)

images-2One thing that happens when you start to simplify your eating habits and explore your extended neighborhood for locally-grown produce is you wind up trying new things.    Dropping processed foods creates a void–and it’s a fun adventure to see what winds up filling it.

Last year when I was beginning the journey of exploration of my local food resources in Central New Jersey, I went to the Griggstown Farm Market and made an impulse buy of a bag of wild rice.  It was $7.00, which to me was a real guilty pleasure, considering you can buy those little tubes of Goya rice for less than $1.

It sat there on the middle shelf in my cabinet for months, and then got moved to the upper shelf.  I really didn’t know what to do with this stuff that  looked like the Marlboro Man of rice–rugged and swarthy compared to the Harvey Milquetoast of plain old white rice.

My vegan daughter came for dinner last weekend, and when she foraged in my cabinet she came across the rice.  “Let’s make this, Mom!”  So we invested the 45 minutes it takes to cook wild rice, and used it as an accompaniment to our grilled, skewered veggie-kabobs.

It was great–a bit nutty tasting with a lot of texture.   I was so intrigued by how different it was compared to the standard white rice, rice pilaf, yellow rice, and even brown rice, I looked it up.    According to Wikipedia:

Wild rice is any of the four species of plants that make up the genus Zizania (common names:Canada riceIndian rice, and water oats), a group ograsses that grow in shallow water in smalllakes and slow-flowing streams; often, only the flowering head of wild rice rises above the water. The genus is closely related to true rice, genus Oryza, which is also a grass, and shares the tribe Oryzeae. Three species of wild rice are native to North America:

The other great thing about wild rice is its nutritional content–apparently it compares favorably against even brown rice in terms of the amount of protein, Vitamin E and folate one serving of wild rice has vs. brown.  Here’s a cool site where I looked at the nutritional facts of wild rice.

The barrier that caused this nutritional gem to be relegated to the top shelf of my cabinet for almost a year was because I had the idea wild rice is harder to make than other rice.  That’s not true.  I have a small stockpot, and I used it to sweat some onion, throw in the rice, add water, and then put the whole pot (you can use a casserole dish as well) into a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes.  That’s it!  If you’re in a hurry, maybe Rice-a-Roni is better, but for an extra 20 minutes, you have something really special.

I guess the point is, sometimes it’s worth it to make the effort to try something new, gastronomically speaking.  It’s usually easier than you think.  If you are interested in eating healthier and more sustainably, pick up something you never had before the next time you go to your favorite local or natural foods market.   An hour of time or less invested in learning something new and overcoming barriers of unfamiliarity with a new food may pay off in a great way to fill in a void normally filled in your diet by something processed and packaged.

What does Tax Day have to do with Voluntary Simplicity?

successful-manI missed posting yesterday because of two converging deadlines–one at work and one imposed on me by Uncle Sam.  True to form as a world-class procrastinator, although I had diligently prepared my taxes on QuickBooks and had begun the filling out of TurboTax screens, I still had a couple of hours of work ahead of me yesterday.  I finally pushed the button at 10:37 p.m.–fulfilling my annual requirement as a citizen in the nick of time.

Unfortunately I owed money this year–I started a consultant business in May but didn’t set enough aside along the way to cover my tax liability. 

Thinking about how nice it would be to not have to write out that check, I started thinking about the many people ahead of me who opted out of paying taxes as an act of Civil Disobedience, such as Thoreau.

Other more contemporary folks have conscientiously (and legally) opted out of paying taxes to make a statement about intolerable social conditions, such as homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing and the environmentalist Jim Merkel.   They did it by choosing a life of voluntary simplicity.  So voluntary simplicity can be many things:  a way of life, a political statement, a spiritual journey, an antiwar protest, an act of solidarity among our poorer brothers and sisters, or a pact with the earth to protect and defend it.

The term “voluntary simplicity” is attributed to Richard Gregg, a Quaker who wrote a little pamphlet called “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity” in 1936.   The pamphlet is published by Pendle Hill and can be downloaded for free here.   In it, Gregg describes what it is:

Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. For example, the men who tried to climb Mount Everest concentrated their thoughts and energies on the planning of that expedition for several years, and in the actual attempt discarded every ounce of equipment not surely needed for that one purpose.

Not surprisingly, his description ties in perfectly with the path to simplicity outlined half a century later by his fellow Quaker, Richard Foster the book Celebration of Discipline.

In addition to Richard Foster’s classic, another classic was born in the 80s–the book Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin. Although he was inspired by Gregg’s writings, Elgin’s orientation to his own book on the topic is little more focused on the cultural and the collective vs. the more individual approach, while at the same time challenging us to accept our personal responsibility for the state of the world.   This book became THE definitive work for the volunatary simplicity movement of the post-Vietnam era.

I met Duane Elgin last year when he spoke at The Open Center in New York City.  The topic was “The World at the Tipping Point:  A Big Picture View of Our Future”–a program that he takes on the road.  It was quite positive and optimistic, and I was thrilled to get a chance to be a part of this pretty interactive discussion.    It was inspiring to hear his take on the future, which is filled with hope for the human race.  While he stresses that it is the individual choices we make which will prod the world into a transitional, transformative epoch, these choices have to start from a place that we may not even know exists for us:

To act voluntarily requires not only that we be conscious of the choices before us (the outer world) but also that we be conscious of ourselves as we select among those choices (the inner world).  We must be conscious of both choices and chooser if we are to act voluntarily.  Put differently, to act voluntarily is to act in a self-determining manner.  But who is the “self” making the determinations of behavior? … The point is that the more precise and sustained is our conscious knowing of ourselves, the more voluntary or choiceful can be our participation in life… The more conscious we are of our passage through life, the more skillfully we can act, and the more harmonious can be the relationship between our inner experience and our outer expression.

So, if you are really looking for a way to legally reduce your tax liability to the Federal Government next year, one way to do it is to adopt a life of voluntary simplicity–deliberately choosing what will feed your purpose in life, and discarding all the rest.  That may be the best tax shelter there is.

Foodbyte #2: You want to eat healthily: Poll: What’s keeping you?

One of the reasons I’m interested in highlighting information that has been written by many outstanding researchers and writers in the field of food (among other fields) is that there are many books that go unread because we’re so busy.  Like the title of the classic personal development book, Acres of Diamonds, we are sitting on gems of knowledge and insight, but we don’t have time to mine them!  So when you read a book that actually has the power to change your life, you want to share it.  You tell your friends, “You should read this book,” and they say, “Yeah, I’ll pick it up sometime.”  But they won’t because they’re too busy.  And the fact of the matter is, one of the reasons we are in the dietary fix we’re in is because of exactly that–we don’t have time to pay attention.  We don’t have time to cook, or plan menus.   We take the path of least resistance, not because we want to, but because we have to.    

But if we’re motivated, we’ll try a little harder to change the things we can to improve our health and habits.  And if you can take a couple of minutes to read this post and others like it, you may eventually be motivated to make small changes.   So, I’d like to try to unearth some of the diamonds out there about food and present the information in a way that might be helpful and maybe even motivating.  

In my mind, there are a few main reasons people want to eat better but they can’t:

  • No time to prepare food.
  • No time to plan.
  • Packaged, processed foods are convenient.
  • We all know that processed foods aren’t that great, but they taste good.
  • The things we love to eat, our “comfort foods” are tied in deeply with our memories and emotions.
  • As a family, we are all bound by a common interest in the same foods, so it would be tough to change.
  • Cravings for sugar and/or fat are just too hard to resist.
  • Eating on the run has become a pattern.
  • The perception that eating healthily is expensive.

There may be a lot of other reasons, but many of the ones I listed have prevented me from eating as healthily as I should. But over the course of the year, I’ve learned a few things that have motivated me to take some basic steps to eating healthier.   Lately, I have:

  • Built a small but growing file of tasty, easy recipes that I tested and practiced one by one.  
  • Created a pantry list to take to the supermarket so there are always good ingredients on hand.  
  • Habitually looked at labels and count how many edible single ingredients there are in each package.  If there is high fructose corn syrup in it, or a long list of preservatives and artificial ingredients, I try to find a better choice.
  • Learned to enjoy eating fresh foods, and my palate is reflecting that.   I now refuse to eat canned soups of any kind because making them fresh doesn’t take that long and they are SO much better.  This, from a person whose children do not recall a single home-cooked  meal that I made for them in their formative years (my husband, thank God, is a wonderful cook).  

So if I can do it, you can too–and I aim to help break down every one of those barriers I cited above, and then some.  To help me, please take the poll and pass it along to a few of your friends.   

By the way, I forgot to mention another author to add to the reading list in last week’s Foodbyte post.  I can’t believe I forgot, because she’s a leader in the field of food politics.  Marion Nestle is Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.  She has written several books that are dense with information and give a million reasons to think about why you eat what you eat.   To get started, read Food Politics.   She also has a terrific blog at  Check it out. 

Here’s a parting quote from the Introduction of Food Politics:

Humans do not innately know how to select a nutritious diet; we survived in evolution because nutritious foods were readily available for us to hunt or gather.  In an economy of overabundance, food companies can sell products only to people who want to buy them.  Whether consumer demands drives food sales or the industry creates such demands is a matter of debate, but much industry effort goes into trying to figure out what the public ‘wants’ and how to meet such ‘needs.’  Nearly all research on this issue yields the same conclusion.  When food is plentiful and people can afford to buy it, basic biological needs become less compelling and the principal determinant of food choice is personal preference.  In turn, personal preferences may be influenced by religion and other cultural factors, as well as by considerations of convenience, price, and nutritional value.  To sell food in an economy of abundant food choices, companies must worry about those other determinants much more than about the nutritional value of their products–unless the nutrient content helps to entice buyers… Thus the food industry’s marketing imperatives principally concern four factors:  taste, cost, convenience, and … public confusion. — Marion Nestle, Food Politics; p.16

Foodbyte #1: Questions to Chew On about Eating

4424752For my birthday last week, my daughter gave me a book by Christopher D. Cook called Diet for A Dead Planet:  Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.  I haven’t really started reading it in earnest yet, but I’m looking forward to it.  As I mentioned in my early post about Lent:  A Tool for Simplifying, reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma set me off on a Lenten challenge to give up high fructose corn syrup.  In addition, it really incited in me an interest in food politics, and it ultimately changed the way I eat.   In fact, when I quit my corporate job last year to become a consultant, part of the reason I left was because I recognized that I couldn’t change the way I eat and simultaneously work the hours I was working. 

As a person who once made instant mashed potatoes for her son believing that she was making him pancakes, I obviously do not approach this point of view from the vantage point of being a food snob.  On the contrary, my goal in eating, most of the time anyway, is to be able to check it off on my daily to-do list.  I have always been a complete failure in the kitchen and relied heavily on the nice assortment of fast food chains lining the main thoroughfare of my town.  So, I realized that if I were to take my diet into my own hands, it was going to be a huge challenge.   I had to go right back to the drawing board.  And I think that as a nation we are starting to think the same thing.   We need to get back to basics.

Undoing our bad dietary habits will not be easy.  It will be like untangling a pile of fishing line.  Or maybe it will be more like breaking up a bar fight—because food certainly is a passion for many of us.  The way we cling to our eating patterns–well, as the old cigarette commercial used to say, we’d rather fight than switch.  It’s amazing how primal our feelings about food are, and if we can’t address this fact, we are going to remain absolutely impotent before the forces that are doing us harm.

And the forces are many– to name a few: 

  • The outmoded policies of the Department of Agriculture
  • Every corporation with a vested stake in what goes on the supermarket shelves
  • Our dual income, acquisitive culture which puts time at work before healthy home-cooked meals
  • Our personal cravings and sweet tooths (sweet teeth?), which have been exploited by manufacturers for profit. 
  • The slippery slope we have been rolling down for decades which has permitted us to accept some really outrageous industrial practices, and take for granted others which simply don’t even make sense.

To effect serious and long-lasting change at an individual level, it will take a slow digestion (excuse the pun) of why are are where we are in America today.  That is, we are exploding in an epidemic of cardiac disease, diabetes, and other diseases that can be largely controlled simply by watching what we eat and exercising.   And we really aren’t aware of the silent puppeteers pulling our strings and making our efforts doomed from the start.

Last year (around the time I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma), I was conducting an interview with an endocrinologist, who, when asked if her patients are unable to control their diabetes simply because they are non-compliant with their therapy, she said, 

“The patients want to do what’s right.  But they are sabotaged by the supermarkets.  They pick up bread that says ‘whole grain’ but they don’t read the labels to see that they are really highly processed.  I’ve had to literally write a list of the specific products that they should be eating.” 

Because of the complexity of this issue, and also because I am not a nutritionist or a policy analyst– just a concerned citizen–my intention here is not to teach, but to ask questions, and provide possible resources for answers.  So, I will be writing ongoing bite-sized pieces of information that may be helpful in building awareness and understanding about eating as well as tools to aid in making changes.  

Here are some questions that I have been asking myself for a year now:

  • Does it make sense that most of the farms in the US have become monocultures, when crop rotation has multiple economic and environmental benefits such as avoiding the build-up of pathogens and pests, balancing the fertility demands of various crops; avoiding excessive depletion of soil nutrients and improving soil structure and fertility?
  • If we are such a compassionate society, how can we tolerate the deplorable lives millions of sentient beings spend in factory farms and feedlots?    
  • Why are farm subsidies actually hurting our farmers?
  • If factory farmers “finish” cattle (i.e., get them up to proper weight for slaughter) with corn and corn byproducts to make them fatter faster, what do all these ubiquitous corn products in our food, such as high fructose corn syrup, do to us?
  • What do we have to gain economically and physically by investing time and money in  “real” food?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions for sure, but I’m trying to learn.  So I will be sharing information.   My goal would be to try to come up with solutions that are forward-looking–not: all women should quit their jobs and go back to the kitchen, but solutions that are relevant for the culture we now find ourselves in.   To that end, I welcome dialogue for brainstorming, so please feel free to comment.  Look for “Foodbytes” blog entries about once a week.

In the meantime, here’s a great reading list from   9 Must Read Books on Eating Well

If you only have 20 minutes to spare, here’s an interesting Ted Talk given by Michael Pollan.  You can watch it at work while you’re eating lunch.

Bon Appetit!

Richard Foster’s 10-Fold Path to Simplicity

Richard Foster is a Quaker minister and mystic, whose Celebration of Discipline is a classic in the books about spirituality. He writes frequently on the topic of simplicity, and in fact, has an entire book on the topic called Freedom of Simplicity. He believes that simplicity starts as an interior exercise, manifested later in outward practices.

To spur me on in my Lenten quest to let go, I turned today to one of my favorite chapters in Celebration of Discipline, which is called, appropriately, “Simplicity.” Here is an excerpted and abridged version of his 10 ways to achieve outward simplicity. I encourage you to get or borrow a copy of his book and read the chapter in its entirety, and to pay particular attention to his thoughts on inward simplicity, which I am not going to discuss in this post, even though that means I’m putting the cart before the horse to some degree.

  1. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status. Cars should be bought for their utility, not their prestige. Consider your clothes. Most people have no need for more clothes. They buy more not because they need clothes, but because they want to keep up with the fashions. Hang the fashions!
  2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you. Learn to distinguish between a real psychological need, like cheerful surroundings, and an addiction. Any of the media that you find you cannot do without, get rid of. If money has a grip on your heart, give some away and feel the inner release. 
  3. Develop a habit of giving things away. If you find that you are becoming attached to some possession, consider giving it to someone who needs it. De-accumulate! Masses of things that are not needed complicate life. They must be sorted and stored and dusted and resorted and restored ad nauseum.
  4. Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry. Most gadgets are built to break down and wear out and so complicate our lives rather than enhance them. Usually gadgets are an unnecessary drain on the energy resources of the world. Environmental responsibility alone should keep us from buying the majority of the gadgets produced today.
  5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them. Owning things is an obsession in our culture. If we own it, we feel we can control it; and if we can control it, we feel it will give us more pleasure. The idea is an illusion. Enjoy the beach without feeling you have to buy a piece of it. 
  6. Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation. Get close to the earth. Walk whenever you can. Listen to the birds. Enjoy the texture of grass and leaves. Smell the flowers. Marvel in the rich colors everywhere. 
  7. Look with a healthy skepticism at all ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes. They are a trap and only deepen your bondage. Certainly prudence, as well as simplicity, demands that we use extreme caution before incurring debt. 
  8. Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech. ‘Let what you say be simply Yes or No; anything more than this comes from evil.’ (Matt. 5:37) If you consent to do a task, do it. Avoid flattery and half-truths. Make honesty and integrity the distinguishing characteristics of your speech. 
  9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others. Do we sip our coffee and eat our bananas at the expense of exploiting Latin American peasants? In a world of limited resources, does our lust for wealth mean the poverty of others? Should be buy products that are made by forcing people into dull assembly-line jobs? Do we enjoy hierarchical relationships in the company or factory that keep others under us? Do we oppress our children or spouse because we feel certain tasks are beneath us? 
  10. Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God. It is so easy to lose focus in the pursuit of legitimate, even good things. Job, position, status, family, friends, security—these and many more can all too quickly become the center of attention.

Letting Go of the Lure of Bottled Water and Other Marketing Tricks

CB061652My day job is in marketing, and so I know how much money goes into making you think you need something without which you lived fine previously.   In our still-recent boom times, you could tell people had money to spare because we’ve been spending it on stuff like branded expensive coffee and, of all things, water.    

I knew I had fallen over the edge, after years of resisting buying bottled water, when I got off of a long plane ride, got right into a cab and went straight to my hotel.  The first thing I did was to look for the ridiculously expensive bottle of water that usually greets you when you walk in the door of your room.    I was really dehydrated from the trip, and I searched frantically for the liter bottle that I was so used to seeing, and which I usually ignored.  

But it wasn’t there!  I was so disappointed and frustrated and thought to myself, as I went to the bathroom to wash my face–I can’t believe they don’t have water in this hotel room!  Meanwhile, some similar stuff was pouring over my hands out of the taps in the bathroom.  As this substance that seemed strangely like water hit my face and I licked my lips, I startled myself crying out–“Wait a minute!  I think this IS water!”  

I wasn’t in Mexico City–I was in some American city that I’m sure had a water filtration system that could pretty much guarantee I would get home without Montezuma’s Revenge, but somehow tap water had become so second-class that I didn’t even consider it to be fit for drinking, even as my parched lips were craving anything potable.

I am usually on my guard with my antennae up high to trap all those subconscious cues that tell us we have to have something, especially because I am in the industry.  And I know that we’re all up against a pretty powerful enemy.  Think of the money, the talented Wharton graduates, the ambition of people whose goal in their worklife is to get you to buy their employer’s product.  I recall a time when I was in the back room of a focus group and the moderator asked the respondent how they felt about not having the particular thing that my client was trying to sell.  The respondent said, “I’m fine [not having it].”  The brand manager in the back room said, “You won’t be when we get done with you!”  

How do you fight that?  How do you let go of all those niggling little wants that are nothing more than manufactured and predictable responses to well-crafted stimuli by profiteering corporations?   

Here’s a few ideas:

1)  Watch less TV:  In 2007, television advertising revenue was $46.5 billion dollars according to the Television Bureau of Advertising.  You don’t think corporations aren’t getting something in return?

2)  Realize you ARE being manipulated.  Up until the 50s, advertising messages were product feature/attribute focused.  Then, psychologists got involved and advertisers started appealing to the motivations behind the purchasing decisions of potential customers.  Now the customers themselves are segmented and profiled and marketed to individually.  Read the classic The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard to understand how advertising might be hitting your buttons in ways that you’re not even aware of.  

3)  Realize that for everything that you can buy, there could be a product that’s cheaper or even free.    Here’s a sampling of substitutions that are healthier for you–either physically, or economically, or environmentally, or all three.  

  • Water with lemon instead of soda
  • Green cleaning materials like distilled vinegar or borax instead of Mr. Clean or PineSol
  • Baking soda instead of toothpaste
  • Brewed coffee at home instead of that addictive S***bucks stuff
  • One nice piece of organic dark chocolate for a treat instead of a Hostess cupcake

4)  Unplug.   Participate in Buy Nothing Day, or Mental Detox Week.  

5)  Get involved with organizations like Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood which has information that is truly scary about the hold that advertisers have on our children.

5)  Question your motives.  

6)  Know that by not succumbing to the lure of beauty, success, the perfect life–side shows created by people with one agenda–to sell their stuff–you are simplifying your life and letting contentment flow like a river.