Everything I Eat Is Wrong: Food Shockumentary Fall-Out

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This post originally ran on Food Riot, which has closed its doors. I’m rerunning some of my favorite posts I did for the magazine before it goes dark forever.

This article wrote itself in reverse. I set out to document a phenomenon I saw happen repeatedly on Facebook. Someone would watch a food documentary – the kind of documentary film meant to shock you into a changed course of action. A shockumentary, if you will. And after watching said film, the person would find themselves lost at sea. Suddenly, everything they ate was wrong, so they sought help and advice on Facebook, where they found such a conflicting collection of opinions, facts, and approaches that they were left throwing their hands up in frustration.

Each time I saw this happen, I tried to help:  I tried to let them know that no action was required right that second; that there was a lot of information out there and that they ultimately had to do what was best for them and their family and lifestyle and budget and moral compass. I recommended taking a moment to breathe. I tried to be their Fairy Godmother, the Fairy Godmother of Food. I wanted to wave my wand and make their decisions easier, to clear up the muddy waters of food education.

But I was living in a food closet, because here’s the thing:  up until last week, I had never watched a shockumentary. I had read Michael Pollan books. Friends had told me horror stories of things they had read or seen. I had even driven past a few factory farms on my way cross-country. I had resources, and I knew a few things, but only academically. Only enough to give me some opinions. Just enough to leave me wanting to wave a wand and make everything all right.

When I set out to write this post, I asked a few friends questions about their experiences with food shockumentaries:  what had they watched, how had they felt, what did they change as a result? The answers were largely consistent. They had watched one or two of the most notable food documentaries – Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives, Super Size Me, etc. – and had been horrified at the state of our food system. They had felt a range of emotions – shock, shame, guilt, anger. They resolved to do things differently, and they made adjustments to their diets and food shopping. Not all of the changes stuck, but they were changed people. While the images eventually receded to the backs of their minds, and the initial horror softened into faded memory, they remained passionate about what they knew. They took the reasonable steps they felt they could take. Did they give up all meat/soy/corn/soft drinks/etc. entirely? No. But they did what they could.

I talked to a friend, Rachel, who used to run her local chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local in Virginia. When I first announced my article idea on Facebook, she reached out, recognizing a similar moment when she used to deliver information and education about farming, and where our food comes from, and the benefits of buying fresh and local. People would feel doomsday descending; the feeling that everything they had been doing was wrong became palpable, and she learned to recognize it and counteract it by handing down sensible advice. She urged people to start small. As she said, “when people realized what a big impact a small effort could make, they seemed to relax a little.”

I was ready to write, really. But I felt nagged by my conscience. Could I really hand down advice to people who have watched food shockumentaries without having first watched one myself? Doesn’t that seem a bit presumptuous? A bit condescending? A bit hypocritical?

So last week, my wife and I scanned through movies to stream on Netflix. And I mentioned one I had seen listed called Vegucated, about three New Yorkers who switch to a vegan diet for six weeks. We decided to watch it, and I felt my conscience would settle. And all was well until the three New Yorkers went to a seminar on the food industry, where they watched behind-the-scenes footage of factory farming and meat processing.

And the bottom fell out. I dropped my wand. And then I picked it up and broke it over my knee. Who was I to give advice? I couldn’t be a Fairy Godmother. I need a Fairy Godmother. Suddenly, all my advice sounded empty and hollow. I had seen things I couldn’t un-see.

It was at that point that I was happy this article got written in reverse. I went back to my notes, to the responses I gathered from friends. I let their reactions and experiences bolster me up; I wasn’t alone. I re-read Rachel’s notes. I let her practical advice empower me.

And I talked to my wife. A lot. I rode the wave from emotional reaction – horror, shame, guilt, shock – into academic discussion. Who are we as eaters? What do we want? What can we do?

The thing is, whenever you subject yourself to new information, whether it’s about the food system or the government or the environment, you make yourself vulnerable to the impulse to change. We are humans, and we are dynamic. We learn new things, and we process and synthesize and make decisions about how to proceed.

I can’t be a Fairy Godmother because I can’t wave a wand and make everything rosy and fair and ethical. I can’t make information easier to process. We are citizens of the world, and we are eaters, and we must decide how to proceed, trusting our moral compass and our brain and our circumstances to guide us.

But I suppose that really, my initial advice still holds true. The advice I had planned to give to others is the advice I’ve had to give to myself. Your feelings are valid. Your reaction is honest. As a person, you are dynamic, an ever-changing being; as an eater, you are dynamic, an ever-changing being. And whatever you decide, whether it’s a big or small change, be gentle. Walk softly.

Breasts or Wings? Hooters and My First Food Shaming

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This post originally ran on Food Riot, which has closed its doors. I’m rerunning some of my favorite posts I did for the magazine before it goes dark forever.

hooters logo

The year was 1993. I was in the third grade, and my teacher, on a Monday morning, asked us to write up what we had done that weekend.

Saturday is a blur in my memory now, but I remember writing easily about Sunday. For lunch, we had gone to Hooters, where I would have ordered either a grilled cheese sandwich or a hot dog. (It would be later that I would appreciate their wings.) Those days were grand, my friends. Hooters made one hell of a grilled cheese sandwich, and their hot dogs weren’t bad either. I was one happy girl amid the blare of televisions airing sporting events, with my mom and my dad and my little brother, all happily chowing down.

When my teacher asked me to share what I had written, I stood up at my seat and read. My teacher smiled. She knew what was up. I thought she had likely had the grilled cheese, too.

But when I sat down, the pure evil that was Jessica Carson (names have been changed because I’m too poor to get sued) descended upon me.

“You go to Hooters?” she asked, dripping with judgment. She might as well have asked, “You eat babies?” or “You still watch Barney?” All the same to her.

“Yep! Their grilled cheese is really good.” I was on a mission, similar to the evangelical mission I would take up in my teen years. I was bringing people to the path of grilled cheese.

“You only go there because your dad likes to look at the waitresses’ boobs,” she taunted.

“That’s not true,” I said. I feel sure my face must have flushed; it’s my embarrassment reaction. “My mom went with us.”

Jessica sat back in her chair. “Then your mom is just sick,” she said. And with that, she turned back to her desk, where she plotted all her evil deeds (like kicking me in the fourth grade – that bitch just wouldn’t let up).

I was humiliated. How had the innocent joy of a rocking grilled cheese – perfectly buttery bread grilled on the flat top, with what I can only assume was a white American cheese that my untrained palate then mistook for fancier fare than my run-of-the-mill yellow Kraft singles, melty and delicious, nonetheless, with curly fries on the side – how had Jessica Carson turned that joy in a parchment paper-lined basket into something shameful, wrong, and embarrassing? How had she taken my parents down in one fell swoop? They weren’t in our class; they couldn’t defend themselves. And I was so shocked at the accusation – my dad some dirty old man, my mom some weird sidekick of his – that I was rendered speechless.

Some version of this has likely happened to all of us. Perhaps as you were sinking your teeth into velvety foie gras, someone piped up and told you about the complicated ethical debate surrounding the production of foie gras.

Perhaps you’ve merely been tearing into a bag of Funyuns and received the stink eye from people who issued complaints about the stink of the snack (and let’s face it, the inevitable stink of Funyun breath).

There is a scene at the beginning of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where a young Toula is asked by a table full of terribly white, terribly blonde, terribly PB&J-eating children what she is eating for lunch. “Moussaka,” she replies. “Moose caca?” the blonde girl laughs, poking fun at Toula’s heritage, her food, and her family.

M.F.K. Fisher is quoted as saying, “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” That quote gets at the heart of why I would not order buffalo wings on a first date (or several dates to follow – you need some level of commitment to feel safe eating messy foods in front of a significant other). Eating is sensual and a little animalistic. It’s active – we tear, we bite, we chew, we dredge, we pull, we hold. It is a physical need, and therefore it’s a highly physical act.

But it’s also an emotional act, one that makes us vulnerable to the people around us. From the embarrassment of food stuck in our teeth to the full on food shaming antics of Jessica Carson and her lemmings all the world over, eating exposes us to one another.

When I set about writing this article, it was to share a funny anecdote about Hooters. But as I wrote, it showed me something more. Just like finding a friend to shop with or go to a concert with, we should perhaps be selective about who we share our food, and indeed our love of food, with. The same way we should think twice about giving our hearts to feckless or undeserving individuals, we shouldn’t give our appetites away too freely either. We need not fear food shaming, but we also need not waste our passion on people who see a Hooters sign and think only of breasts and not of wings.

Food is physical. It fuels us. It comforts us. It’s personal. And frankly, it’s too precious to let the Jessica Carsons of the world ruin our grilled cheese sandwiches.

The Tomato Community | quinoa tabouleh with chickpeas

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This summer, I’ve mostly eaten alone. My wife has been deployed, and I have to say, my meals have gotten a bit repetitive.

This is due in part to the fact that it’s summer, and the things that are bountiful are the things I want to eat all the time. It’s also due in part to the fact that without my wife here, I get a little lazy, a little lax. My dinners fall into the category of Nothing to Write Home About. I mean, this blog is about a writer who cooks – it’s theoretically 50% about food. Take a look around. If I roll up in here with a photo of my PB&J and pretzel sticks and nectarine slices, the food blogging world will laugh at me. I’ll look crazy.

(Of course, the 50% of this blog that’s about writing sees no problem with this and applauds my efforts at a balanced meal – peanut butter AND fruit? That’s practically a salad!)

But while the repetition can become tiresome – “lentil salad again????” – it can also be a blessing.

Have you thought about the way that seasonality binds us? I mean, truly, think about it. Almost everywhere you go in the U.S. right now, sweet corn and tomatoes and cucumbers and stone fruit abound. We’re all pretty much eating the same thing.

And you don’t have to take my word for it. Let’s consider, just for a moment, the Tomato Community, as witnessed on Instagram:

From Bon Appetit.

From Bon Appetit.

That shredded mozzarella is pretty much porn. We’re all thinking it.

From Amateur Gourmet

From Amateur Gourmet

From Nicole at Eat This Poem

From Nicole at Eat This Poem

From

From Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appetit Magazine

From Local Milk

From Local Milk

I mean, all the pretty. Tomatoes abound, and they’re gorgeous, and we’re all eating them, and a lot of us are photographing them, and in a way, that connects us, right? Like, because it’s sunny and hot and summer, because of the season, because of the bounty of the harvest, we are connected through the food.

Am I reaching? Maybe. But like I said, it’s gotten pretty lonely around dinner time this summer. Plus, I’m writing a lot, which means I have to force myself to be even more solitary, and y’all:  that gets to you after awhile, which is why I feel all warm and fuzzy when I see a bunch of tomato pictures on Instagram and think, THIS IS MY TRIBE.

(Luckily for me, my wife is home now! Happy day! Normalcy restored!)

But even though she’s home, the summer’s not over. Not quite. We can still get our hands on those beauties – we can still be part of the Tomato Community.

When I knew my wife was coming home, I whipped up this Quinoa Tabouleh with Chickpeas, which I modified just slightly from FoodieCrush. We would need lunches, ones I could prep in a hurry mid-day, and one that she could take with her to work. This salad has everything I want – protein, vegetables, fresh herbs, a zingy lemon dressing, and it pairs with feta cheese and a fried egg like a dream.

Quinoa Tabouleh with Chickpeas

Adapted from FoodieCrush

The original recipe served 8-10, but since we eat this as a main dish (and I spaced on getting two cucumbers instead of one), I stretched it to serve 4-5.

photo (22)ingredients

1/2 cup uncooked quinoa

1 15.5oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 hothouse cucumber, seeded and chopped as desired

1 pint cherry tomatoes (go for the gorgeous heirloom variety – you won’t be sorry), halved or quartered

3 scallions, finely chopped

1 cup finely chopped parsley

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

instructions

1. Cook quinoa according to package instructions. If you’re like me and you went through a phase where you put all your dry goods in jars and perhaps you didn’t keep the instructions:  Bring one cup water to a boil in a saucepan. Add quinoa, give it a stir, cover, and reduce to simmer. Simmer 12-15 minutes, until quinoa is done. Remove pot from heat, put the lid on, and let sit 10 minutes (this will make sure the quinoa doesn’t stick to the pot).

2. In a large bowl, mix chickpeas, chopped cucumber, halved or quartered tomatoes (confession:  I halved some and quartered others – it was MADNESS), scallions, parsley, and quinoa. Season with salt and pepper and toss to combine.

3. In a jar, combine lemon juice, olive oil, and a little more salt and pepper. Replace the lid (make sure it’s on tight!), and then shake like hell to emulsify the dressing. Add as needed to the salad, stirring as you go to incorporate and fully dress the salad. (I only used about 1/2 – 2/3 of my dressing, leaving some leftover for later in the week. By all means, if you want to use it all, go for it.)

4. Enjoy as is, or sprinkle on some feta, or if you need more protein (I always need more protein) throw a fried egg on top! Makes great lunches for the week ahead.

Seven Ways to Tell if Applebee’s (Allegedly) Accidentally Got Your Baby Drunk

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This post originally ran on Food Riot, which has closed its doors. I’m rerunning some of my favorite posts I did for the magazine before it goes dark forever. 

drunk babyHuffington Post ran an article this week about a restaurant in New York that allegedly served children mimosas instead of orange juice during brunch. While the news might be shocking (or not) to some, it was the final paragraph that I found most surprising:

Young children are served alcohol at restaurants disturbingly often. Chain restaurants seem to be particularly susceptible to the error. Children as young as four have allegedly been served alcohol by mistake at Olive Garden, Applebee’s, and Chili’s since 2011.

So in my desire to be helpful, here are seven ways to tell if Applebee’s (allegedly) accidentally got your child drunk.

Drunk Texting

Your child takes your phone and begins drunk texting Grandma, the other moms from the soccer team, and the neighbors, demanding their immediate presence at Applebee’s, where things are “awesome.”

Exhibitionism

Your child leaves the booth, drops his pants, and begins singing, “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes, KNEES AND TOES. Everybody!”

Moroseness

When adults don’t join in with “Knees and toes,” child goes to a dark, quiet place. He sits with his head in his hands, his plate in front of him, lamenting his mediocre kickball skills and the fact that all the kids at school know he eats glue. “They KNOW it. These chicken nuggets know it. And they mock me.”

Loss of Sensation

Your child taps the tip of his nose, finds it numb, and demands to know who took his nose. “Who’s got my nose?”

Deep Thoughts

Your child suddenly realizes how deeply disturbing “Go, Diego, Go” actually is. “Children, picking up animals in distress. I mean, he’s my age. What am I doing with my life? You won’t even let me pick up healthy cats, but Diego gets to have a cool jungle cat for his friend and help injured whales without adult supervision? This is bullshit!”

Use of Expletives

Your baby just said, “bullshit.”

Fatigue

Your child’s hot fudge sundae arrives at the table, but your child has passed out, using the sugar caddy as a pillow.

The (Food) Riot Is Over

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As of June 30, my beloved Food Riot has closed its doors. The site remains live for a little bit longer – so if you missed it, head back over there and gobble up all that good food writing before it disappears for good.

Since I started writing in an online platform, it’s been about food. My first gig with this sort of writing was in 2010 when my friend Jesse gave me a humble weekly column called My CSAcation, where I wrote about what to do with a CSA haul. And it blossomed from there. I began to blog. I did reviews, I became a food editor. And then, there was Food Riot.

I grew as a writer for Food Riot. I learned to dig into different types of writing by reading the posts written by my fellow Rioters. I cheered with them when particularly great posts happened – ones that made you look at your food a bit longer than usual. These were our victories. This was what our Riot was for.

When Food Riot announced it would close, it was a turning point. I was writing 12 posts a month for Food Riot – I had wandered away from my blog, I was all food, all the time. It was part of who I was. When people at parties asked me what I did for a living, I said I was a writer, and I led with the fact that I wrote for a food magazine called Food Riot.

It was an identity shift, a bittersweet moment. A chapter was ending. Was I ready?

I was, in a way. And it’s allowed me to transition into a new and exciting chapter – I’m now a contributor for Food Riot’s mother site, Book Riot, a fantastic online magazine that delves into books the way that Food Riot delved into food. I’m reading tons – I have to – and it’s allowing me to really immerse myself in books, and the literary world.

I’m writing a novel. I plan to continue in a career that involves writing novels and short stories and essays. And by being fortunate enough to work for a magazine that focuses on the reading and discussion of novel and stories and essays (not to mention comics and poetry), I’m more fully immersing myself in a new level of my writerly life. And I’m excited.

Petrified, at times. And totally intimidated. I mean, let’s be realistic. But also excited.

I am still a food writer – I have been for years – but this change allows me to take a step back and see what I’m about these days. To turn down the volume and listen to myself, to my appetite. I’m hungry, I can tell you that. And now I can determine what that particular hunger wants.

Over the next few Fridays, I’ll be rerunning my favorite posts I did for Food Riot, before the site goes dark and rolls up the sidewalks. It’s a chance for me to revisit my favorite moments from the year that I was writing for Food Riot, and I’m excited to share that trip down memory lane with you.

And if you’re not familiar with Book Riot, make sure you check them out. We get into some fun stuff over there.

My Reading Month: July 2014

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For my new job (another story for another post), I read. A lot. Partly because the people I work with read TONS. I mean, serious, serious tons of reading. It’s astounding.

I’m trying to keep up, and it’s a fun challenge. I write, and I love to read, obviously, but to be disciplined at it, to keep up with new releases and be part of the bookish conversation, takes work, and it’s work I’m enjoying doing.

So here’s a snapshot of what I’ve been reading this month. And if you read something wonderful, do tell in the comments – I love recommendations!

Books

  • Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents:  I’ve been meaning to read this ever since I heard Julia Alvarez give a craft talk at ODU, and I finally got down to it. And I’m so glad I did! This book was a fantastic look at the divergence of cultures and pasts that come when a family leaves their home country and settles into a new one.
  • Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light:  This was my first Danticat, and I have to say, I didn’t love it as much as I hoped I would. The revolving narrator never left me in one story long enough to satisfy, and that felt more like playing coy and less like a narrative strategy. That said, the writing was gorgeous, and the stories that I did get plunked down in, I wanted to stay with – they were compelling, and that’s what made the revolving narration so frustrating.
  • Clare Ashton’s That Certain Something:  This was my romance novel of the month, and it was lovely airplane reading. I gobble down romance novels for fun, and I’m so glad I’ve started doing that because they’re highly enjoyable. This one is about a girl named Pia who is looking for the girl of her dreams, and then she finds her – through happenstance – only to have their paths cross again in a way that’s painful and complicated for both of them.
  • Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls:  Oh my goodness. This book took me completely by surprise. I read it for a Book Riot article, and it lulled me in with the first couple chapters, making me think these girls would be spoiled and irritating and protected, and then – WHAM – they’re not and all Hell breaks loose, and it gets intense and brutal very fast. This book was great – well-written, a fantastic look at a certain point in history – and it sort of proved to me that I can take the brutality. This book helped show me what kind of reader I can be, and that was good for me.
  • Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck:  Oh, Nora, you left us too soon. This book was fantastic. It was a collection of essays, musings, meditations, whatever, about being a woman. It covered everything from beauty, to parenting, to real estate, to food. I found myself inspired by some parts, nostalgic over others, and feeling altogether sad that Nora Ephron is no longer around to write and make movies, and altogether grateful that we ever had her around at all. I highly recommend this one.
  • Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love:  I’ve been hearing about this collection for yeeeeears. It seemed like every fiction workshop I sat in during grad school, someone lifted up Carver as a model of the short story, particularly as a model for working with point of view and unreliability, so I’m glad I finally got down to reading this collection so that I could have the experience.

Articles

  • In big reading news, the New Yorker has opened its archives until the end of summer. They’ve been around since 1925. That’s a lot of material to get through, but luckily, if you follow them on social media, they’ll help you find some great gems to read from the archives. This is like the Disney Vault, y’all. Get in there and get reading!
  • In 2012, the cruise ship Costa Concordia, struck a reef off the coast of Italy and capsized, killing 32 passengers and crew members. This photo essay from The Atlantic shows the efforts and work to right the ship and re-float it so it could make a final journey to a scrap yard in Genoa. The photos are insane, haunting, and impressive.
  • It’s summer, and lest you take that barbecue you’re throwing or attending for granted, Blake Lively has written a fantastic, Renaissance-inspired breakdown of the summer barbecue. (Thanks, Mary, for the link!)
  • If you have children, or you’ve babysat for babies, you’ve likely read Goodnight Moon. Probably 345 times. But Aimee Bender wants us to be careful before dismissing it as a formulaic, run-of-the-mill baby book. She proposes some good things writers can learn from the classic book. My favorite take-away sentence:  “For writers, this is all such a useful reminder. Yes, move around in a structure. But also float out of that structure.”
  • Some of you know that my novel-in-progress features a cast of seniors citizens, and so when I read this article in The New Yorker about the rise of millennials dubbing themselves “grandmas,” and the fact that real live grandmas are protesting this trend, it was a perfect companion to the writing I do each day on my book.

Writer Camp: Tin House Writers Workshop

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Every so often, I lament that I missed out on the dorm experience. I went to college 20 minutes from my mom’s house, and I lived at home until I graduated. I watch movies like Pitch Perfect and I feel like I missed something, some valuable growth experience that comes with going away to college.

I just finished a week at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, an intensive writing workshop/conference housed at beautiful Reed College in Portland, Oregon. It was lush and green. And hot. I’ve grown used to my freak SoCal weather, and so 90 + degree days, with no AC in the dorms, was an experience.

photo 5 (3)

Most of us were fairly sweaty all the time, but we made it through. I stayed on the third floor (which, you know, was hot like an attic) of an old block of dorms (rightfully named The Old Dorm Block) in what looked like a nun’s cell.

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There were a few things I learned while having my mini-simulated-college-dorm experience:

  • Beware dessert. They will offer dessert at every meal in the dining hall. Even breakfast. And suddenly, on day three, as you shove a cupcake in your mouth, you’ll realize you’ve had dessert at every meal for three days. And suddenly the whole Freshman 15 thing will make total sense.
  • Beware drunk people at 3am. You may be in a dorm full of sleeping dormies, but the two drunk people who come in at 3am and want to have a loud, exuberant conversation in the hallway right outside your door, they will forget that, you know, many people are asleep at 3am. Go use the bathroom and glare at them. They deserve it.
  • Beware co-ed bathrooms. There will be a man who shaves his face over the sink and leaves all his stubble trimmings littered on the sink, the faucet, the handles. He will not be there for you to glare at. Your spirit will diminish slightly.
  • Beware the shower. One day, you will drop your bar of soap onto the shower floor, and you will curse loudly as you try, over and over, to pick it up, and all that will go through your mind is FUNGUS FUNGUS FUNGUS. You will survive, but you will continue to whisper “fungus” to yourself as you shove yet another cupcake in your mouth at breakfast.

I may not have had the “going away to college” dorm experience, but I did go to church camp every summer as a teenager. We stayed in a hotel, where you could get a new bar of soap, where boys stayed on one floor and girls stayed on another and therefore there was no stubble to contend with in the sink. It was sober people who woke you up at 3am, but you got them back by jumping on their bed at 7am and singing “Riiiiise, and shiiiiiine, and give God the glory, glory!”

And in the second half of the week at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop, I realized just how much this workshop, this Writer Camp for adults, was similar to church camp. It was hot, just like church camp. We were pushed to think and talk and study, to push ourselves, just like at church camp. We wanted to gobble up as much as we could, just like at church camp, except here, we armed ourselves with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and went to lectures and craft talks and readings.

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And, just like at church camp, a curious thing happened on the final two nights. At church camp, for those who didn’t grow up zealous and evangelical, the final night or two were the big “come to Jesus” nights. Emotions ran high, sunburn was everywhere, and people felt moved by the Spirit. Usually, on those nights, you wanted to get saved again – and you began to wonder how you could take home this fire, this inspiration, this lit-up feeling that came from total immersion at camp.

Amanda called me on Thursday night, and I snuck out of a reading to chat with her. I stared at a mural of people sitting in trees, reading books, and amid all that, on the top of a window sill, someone had written “Boobs.” And I told her – gushing – how wonderful it all was, how full of goodness and ideas and motivation I was. And I mentioned that it was like church camp. That I was so inspired, so motivated, so completely buried in writing and craft and books and My People – writing people – that I was practically ready to be saved again. That I was wondering how to bring that feeling home with me. That church camp feeling.

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Now I’m home – one week, as of tomorrow – and the flame has shrunk, as it must. Life is not writer camp, the same way that living on your own isn’t really like living in a dorm. But the goodness lingers – the relationships I formed with workshop friends, all of us emailing each other, checking in, offering to read each other’s work; the journal of notes, things to think about and try; the ideas, the help, the victories – a good workshop! an encouraging meeting with an agent! – all of which are wrapped up in a beautiful, green sense memory in my brain.

 

Veggie Burgers and Unsolved Mysteries

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In the week or so following Christmas each year when I was a teenager, my church youth group loaded us up in buses and we went to Cohutta Springs, a camp/conference center situated on a horseshoe lake in the north Georgia mountains. It was simple, but nice:  hotel rooms overlooking the lake, a giant lodge common room with a fireplace that seemed always to be roaring, and across the lake, cabins for rent, a gym for playing in, and a boathouse with canoes and rowboats that could be taken out on the water, provided the lake wasn’t frozen on top.

There were temperamental horses for riding, trails for hiking, rocking chairs for sitting in, and a small gift shop that sold snacks, candies, and (because Cohutta Springs is a Christian retreat center) your usual Christian bookstore fare – t-shirts, motivational bookmarks, CDs, and devotional books.

The center was, and is, run by Seventh-Day Adventists. I grew up Southern Baptist, so I didn’t really know what Seventh-Day Adventist meant. But what I quickly found out was that on certain days, the center was vegetarian. This is important, and I’ll return to it, but first, I want to talk about Unsolved Mysteries.

During the summers, when I was a teenager, I had a very carefully selected daytime TV viewing schedule, to include Unsolved Mysteries at 10am and Rescue 911 at 11am. I watched both shows with rapt attention. Watching Rescue 911 taught me that if you hide out under a car that starts to back up, your leg can get sucked up into the under-carriage. I learned what carbon monoxide poisoning was. I learned how to apply pressure to wounds.

Even though the stories on Unsolved Mysteries were dated (as evidenced by the actors’ costumes), I studied the pictures of the suspects that they flashed on the screen, attempting to commit them to memory in case I encountered them somewhere and I could turn them in.

One year, at Cohutta Springs, for church camp, my sister, Lindsay, and I left the group to walk back around the lake, to the hotel, where we could get a Coke from the vending machine. We wrapped ourselves in blankets we brought from home, and we hiked through wooded areas, uphill, until we came to the main road.

What is it about walking around in the dark that makes us want to tell spooky stories? Why do we do that? It’s not at all helpful. It doesn’t inspire courage or level-headedness. But for whatever reason, I was telling story after story of tales I had seen on Unsolved Mysteries, ones about ghosts in the woods, spectral visions over lakes. My sister humored me. But as we turned out onto the paved road that would take us to the hotel and the sweet, cold can of Coke I wanted, I saw a van.

Now, on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries that I had recently watched, a young woman had been abducted by someone in a utility van, brutally assaulted, and left out on the raodside, dead. The van was later recovered, and her sock was found in it, but there was no evidence of who her attacker was.

But as sure as I sit here today, approaching us on the road ahead was a van that looked JUST LIKE THE ONE ON UNSOLVED MYSTERIES. I grabbed my sister’s arm through the blankets and gasped. “OHMYGOD,” I said. “There was this episode of Unsolved Mysteries where this girl got kidnapped in a van just like that one.”

Lindsay shook it off. “That was years and years ago. It’s not the same van.”

She had a point. Decades had passed. We were probably safe. But as the van approached, it slowed to a stop. IT TOTALLY STOPPED. Incidentally, so did my breathing. I squeezed Lindsay’s arm harder as the driver’s side door opened and a man stepped part-way out of the van, wearing hunting camouflage.

“You girls all right?” It was my youth minister. I sighed with relief and willed my heart to beat normally again.

We assured him we were fine, and we continued on, but as we walked, Lindsay banned me from watching any more Unsolved Mysteries. I did more or less give it up after that, but if I catch reruns today, I still watch it, still with that dutiful sense of vigilance.

But some things stick with us. That sense of hyper-vigilance still plagues me today. (Ask my wife how many times I’ll ask her if we remembered to lock the door, close the garage, shut the windows, unplug the flat-iron, etc.) I haven’t outgrown it, but it manifests differently. I deal with adult fears, more concrete ones.

But remember the Seventh-Day Adventist vegetarian thing? So, yeah, back to that. On the days when Cohutta Springs went vegetarian, they served us veggie burgers. I came into the dining room, and friends told me it was veggie burger day. The name baffled me. How could you make a burger out of vegetables? How was this accomplished? It sounded dangerously like some kind of vegetarian meatloaf nonsense, and I, for one, was not having it. A friend flashed me a peek at the patty on her sandwich – I could see whole pieces of red bell pepper, and I shuddered.

I may not have outgrown my fears of the world/ghosts/intruders/kidnappers/utility vans/otherworldly occurrences/unlocked doors/faulty electricity/lying down under cars, but I did outgrow my fear of the veggie burger. After my friend Claire initiated me into the world of meatless burgers with her bean burger recipe, I began looking for recipes to experiment with.

On Memorial Day, we grilled out for the first time this season. Sweet corn on the cob, veggie burgers, the buns toasted to perfection on the grill, potato salad, and deviled eggs. And the veggie burgers were delicious. Made with grated carrots, black beans, almonds, sunflower kernels, rolled oats, and a few other items, they were sturdy, meaty, and oh-so-filling, not to mention delicious. I read online that one of the best veggie burgers around comes from the Whitewater Cooks cookbook, a recipe used by the chefs at the Whitewater Resort in British Columbia. Angela, of Oh She Glows, adapted it to a vegan recipe here, but I went with the original. If you’re a fan of veggie burgers, looking to outgrow some old childhood fears, or just interested in a Meatless Monday dish, I highly recommend this burger.

Veggie Burgers

Adapted slightly from Whitewater Cooks at Home

This burger does have quite a lot of steps, but it makes a TON of burgers (recipe says twelve, but I easily got 16 burgers out of it) – so plan your time wisely, set out your ingredients before you start, and try to stay ahead of the mess. Go ahead and prepare a few burgers fresh, and then stick the rest in the freezer for a quick weeknight dinner. I will say, I think it could use a touch fewer breadcrumbs, but you want to be able to easily form a patty that’s not too wet or falling apart. Use your best judgment; you can’t go wrong with following the recipe exactly as it’s written.

photo (21)ingredients

1/2 cup almonds, toasted
1 cup sunflower kernels, toasted
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 onion, diced (if you have the textural issues that I do, dice it fine)
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups grated carrot (about 4-5 medium carrots)
1 tablespoon cumin
1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon oregano
1/4 cup parsley or cilantro, chopped
1 15oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup soy sauce
5 eggs, beaten
2 cups rolled oats
3 cups fine breadcrumbs

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Spread almonds and sunflower kernels in an even layer on the cookie sheet and pop it into the preheated oven for 10 minutes, until the nuts are fragrant (check frequently after five minutes just to make sure they’re not burning). Remove to a bowl and allow to cool a bit. Once cool, put the nuts into a food processor and pulse until nicely chopped. Set aside, and clean out the processor bowl/blade.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté about 5-7 minutes, until soft. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

3. Peel carrots and add to cleaned food processor bowl. Let the blade do the work of grating the carrots down for you. Once the carrots are grated nicely, add the nut mixture, the onion-garlic mixture, cumin, chili powder, oregano, parsley/cilantro, and the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil. Pulse to blend.

4. Add the black beans and pulse again to blend.

5. Remove the mixture to a large mixing bowl. You may be thinking – Dana, couldn’t I just keep it all in the food processor? Won’t it get all mixed up in there anyway? Yeah, you’d like to think that, but you’re about to add a lot of volume to the mixture, and it will outgrow the food processor bowl. Just trust me. Big bowl.

6. Add the beaten eggs, soy sauce, rolled oats, and bread crumbs, mixing a bit after each addition. It’ll be dense at the end, and you’ll likely need to use your hands to mix. Feel free.

7. Line a cookie sheet with plastic wrap and sprinkle with a light dusting of flour. Make your patties (about 1/2 cup or so of mixture per patty) and line them up on the baking sheet. Once all patties have been made and are more or less equal in size, dust them all with just a little flour, cover the sheet with plastic wrap and stick it in the freezer. Once the patties are frozen through, put them in a freezer bag for safe keeping.

if making the veggie burgers fresh

I tried pan-frying, grilling, and baking these burgers, and I have to say I prefer baking. It’s a slow heat up, without the burning that comes with the frying pan. Grilling works okay, but don’t bother if you’re not already grilling. Bake at 425° until heated through, about 10 minutes. Check often to make sure the burgers aren’t burning. (Not unlike when I watched Unsolved Mysteries, vigilance is good here.)

if making these burgers frozen

Again, I like baking here. Bake at 425° for about 20 minutes, until completely thawed and heated through.

Enjoy on your favorite buns with the toppings you like – cheese, condiments, more veggies, pickles. And if you can catch an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, the world (and this story) will be complete.

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