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.

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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.

Tea (Cake) Time | lemon tea cake bites


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Have you ever considered how much life happens between meals? I’ve been more disciplined lately about taking legitimate breaks for meals – eating breakfast, then working; then stopping, making lunch, taking a break to eat, and then returning to work in the afternoon. I quit for the dinner bell, so to speak. There are hours between those three meals each day, and so much is contained within them:  errands, adventures, work, etc.

I have a lovely weekly tradition with my friend Claire:  one morning a week, we get together for tea time. It’s post-breakfast, pre-lunch, and it’s a time to relax and catch up, and to enjoy tea and a snack (this week, tea cakes, but I’ll get to that in a minute).

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If meals are for nourishing, and the hours between meals are for living and working and making things happen, I think that tea time is about imagining, dreaming, planning. Tea time is a brief intermission from life. There’s a brilliant Peter Pan quote that illustrates just that:

Would you like an adventure now, or shall we have our tea first?

I think of Mary Poppins, interrupting the laughing party at Uncle Albert’s. Her schedule would not be thrown off for all the laughing shenanigans, so she hosts her tea time on the ceiling. It’s an intermission from the frivolity – the business of laughter – and really, tea time is a stop-time from our work, from the rush of activity that comes between meals.

One of my favorite poems is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. (Really, I still can’t understand why my students used to whine so much when I assigned it. I can’t look at a few lines of it without wanting to relive the whole thing.) When I think of tea time, I think of this excerpt from the poem:

Time for you and time for me
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of toast and tea.

As I work on my novel, as I slog through the hours, accumulate words, and work on revisions – rewriting over and over – that excerpt has special resonance for me:  there will be time for me to work and re-work, to reimagine and make decisions and then re-think them – there will be time for all that, before I take a break for tea and cake. (Or whatever.)

And why the tea? Why the cake? Because that’s the time-out. That’s the excuse to indulge in ritual – to mix sugar and milk, or honey and lemon, into perfectly steeped tea. It’s a time to have a little snack – not a full on meal, but just a taste of something light and small and whimsical. The whimsy is important – tea time is about dreaming, thinking, processing. It’s the pre-cursor to what will be, the still beat where we think and eat and drink and talk.

Coffee is for work; tea is for the break.

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This week, when Claire came over for tea time, I served tea, obviously, but also these darling lemon tea cake bites. Made in a 24-count mini muffin tin, these little babies are cute, light, sweet, and just a tiny bit tart. (And bonus – the recipe yields a lot of lemon simple syrup – I have leftovers and keep trying to decide what to make with it.)

More like a mini-muffin than a proper tea cake, these cakes are easy and quick to whip up, and they’re the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea, a friendly conversation, a dreamy pause from your day. Enjoy.

My Reading Month: April 2014


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photo (16)For the past few months, I’ve been in a writing funk.

No, that’s not true. I’ve been writing. I write for Food Riot, and I’m working diligently on my book. But I have been in a blogging funk, which has distressed me. And every time I do manage to write a post, and I skip and celebrate and say, “Yay, I’m back!” it ends up being another month before I post again. One post does not a comeback make.

But I have been reading. And I thought I’d share some of my favorite things that I read during the month of April.


  • Shannon at a periodic table wrote about her own writers block on her blog in a brilliant series called the Just One Question Project. In a great collection of responses from writers around the web, she gets down to the pitfalls of writers blocks, blogger funk, and all the various and sundry issues therein. It was a tough question to answer – I know because I emailed Shannon and told her that I couldn’t answer the question, being in the midst of my own funk – and it hits on a common problem for writers.


  • Otis loves me! He loves me! And you know how I know? 1) Because he never leaves me alone. 2) Seriously, I can’t go to the bathroom alone. 3) Science. A new study tracks the emotional (or love) response in animals after interaction with humans (and other animals) and it’s true – they LOVE!
  • I ran across this essay by Tamar Adler in The New Yorker - “Learning How to Eat Like Julia Child.” I was doing some research for an article and ran across the essay. We always conjure up this image of a chortling, joyful Julia Child, uttering quotes like how the only reason to eat diet food is if you’re waiting for the steak to cook, and, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” But Adler points out that there’s a great deal of discipline to learning how to eat consciously – how to really taste food. As I spend more time these days eating solo – and cooking solo – this idea of learning to eat and learning to taste and factoring in discipline with enjoyment – this balance – really resonated.


  • I started the month reading Molly Wizenberg’s fantastic new memoir, Delancey:  A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriagewhich I reviewed for Food Riot. A fantastic book – I highly recommend picking it up when it comes out on May 6. Don’t go into it expecting it to be like A Homemade Life:  while it still communicates Molly Wizenberg’s fun, practical, and heartfelt approach to food, she is older and wiser and is, in this memoir, capturing a period of transition – a new venture.
  • Up next, I read Ann Patchett’s wonderful essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I was inspired by her essays on writing, and I was the girl who cries on the airplane while reading the essay about when her dog died. At turns funny, sad, ambitious, and covering a range of topics from writing, to renting an RV, to divorce, to working to join the Los Angeles police department. Read this. It’s fantastic. And then read all her novels, which are equally wonderful.
  • Blowout, Denise Duhamel’s latest book of poetry, was challenging in a way I did not expect. Tracking the progression from losing love to healing to finding new love, the book was brutally honest and then also hopeful, and somehow also funny.


Normal Trees | grilled pbj


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When I think of home – both my adult home, in Virginia, and my childhood home, Georgia – I think of rain. I think of humidity and flowers and family. I think of Gone with the Wind kitsch (I am from Jonesboro, after all).

Last week, I took a trip to both of my homes, first to Virginia, and then to Georgia. And as I walked through parking lots or down streets or drove around town, I just kept saying, “Look at all these normal trees!”

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People thought it was a funny thing to say. It’s full-blown spring in the southeast – tulip trees are blooming, pollen has everyone congested, and everything is bright and green and full of life. In Ventura county, the spring is chilly. Mid-day picnics require a jacket. Our trees bloom, yes, but it’s different. I explained this to people. I reminded them that my corner of southern California rarely sees rain. Our trees can withstand drought. Palm fronds sway on the trees outside my window even as I write this.

I’m always struck by how hard palm fronts actually are. The wispy leaves belie the hardiness of the stalk, of the tree’s trunk. During Santa Ana winds, large layers of the crown of the palm tree will fall to the ground, and road crews hurry to remove them from roadways. They’re not light and flimsy as they look, all bent and peeled away, like banana peels. They are like lemongrass – deceptively flimsy, sharp enough to cut. Like tumbleweeds – so much is contained within their dried, skeletal frames.

California is a mess of contradictions like this. Perfect gorgeous weather, perpetual sunshine – but the terrain is hard and unforgiving, easily given to burning. The green is only just now returning after last year’s Springs Fire. So much is contained here, but you’d never know it for all the sunshine and breezes.

And so when I went home, I saw pines, and tulip trees, and the Japanese maple in my mom’s yard, planted by teenage boys thirteen years ago while my sister and I sat in the grass and watched, planted to remember my brother – a tree now so big and full of bright red leaves. Everything was lush and heavy and full of life.

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When I think of home, I think of trees. I think of the moment, when I found out that Amanda and I were moving cross-country, and I paced in the parking lot outside my building, and I looked at a magnolia tree and burst into tears. “They won’t have magnolia trees in California,” I cried to my friend Mary. They do, as it turns out. My favorite tree in all of Ventura county is a gigantic magnolia in downtown Ventura, the kind that really makes a room, like you could live under it. The kind under which nothing grows, so you wouldn’t want to.

My favorite tree in California is the kind we have at home. It’s like being able to order Duke’s mayonnaise on Amazon. A way to find home in a place that is not.

I can’t think of home, either, without thinking also about food. I have found it hard to maintain my love and enthusiasm for cooking while Amanda is gone. Cooking elaborate meals with plenty of leftovers seems too much trouble for just me by myself. I eat a lot of salads, and I eat a lot of sandwiches.

For me, the best comfort sandwiches are grilled cheese (which I wrote about on Food Riot this month, so check that out if you want some next level grilled cheese ideas) and peanut butter and jelly. And in a moment of inspiration one day, I thought, hey! Grilled PB&J.

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And y’all:  that was a game-changer.

A simple grilled sandwich, made in a cast-iron skillet, with simple ingredients:  white bread, peanut butter, homemade jam, salty Kerry Gold butter. It goes perfectly with salad, with soup, with fruit, or on its own. In moments of longing – for trees, or for my wife to be home, or even just for more energy in writing, for greater stamina in front of the keyboard – a grilled PB&J sets everything right. It’s nostalgic, but grown-up. It’s indulgent, but restrained. It’s like a palm crown or a tumbleweed – deceptively simple.

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The recipe isn’t really even a recipe. Take two pieces of bread, and butter the “outsides” as you would a grilled cheese sandwich. Then turn the bread slices over, and smear one with plenty of peanut butter, and the other with plenty of your favorite jam. Heat a cast-iron skillet, and when it’s ready, assemble the sandwich, and place it in the skillet. Turn after a few minutes, grilling both sides to golden goodness.

I went searching earlier for a poem about trees. This is National Poetry Month, and April 24 is Poem In Your Pocket Day. This will likely be the poem I carry in my pocket, a perfect meditation on what I think of when I think of home – of Southern trees. Or as I call them, normal trees.

where you are planted

by Evie Shockley

he’s as high as a georgia pine, my father’d say, half laughing. southern trees
as measure, metaphor. highways lined with kudzu-covered southern trees.

fuchsia, lavender, white, light pink, purple : crape myrtle bouquets burst
open on sturdy branches of skin-smooth bark : my favorite southern trees.

one hundred degrees in the shade : we settle into still pools of humidity, moss-
dark, beneath live oaks. southern heat makes us grateful for southern trees.

the maples in our front yard flew in spring on helicopter wings. in fall, we
splashed in colored leaves, but never sought sap from these southern trees.

frankly, my dear, that’s a magnolia, i tell her, fingering the deep green, nearly
plastic leaves, amazed how little a northern girl knows about southern trees.

i’ve never forgotten the charred bitter fruit of holiday’s poplars, nor will i :
it’s part of what makes me evie : i grew up in the shadow of southern trees.

Practically Perfect in No Way Whatsoever | Thai cashew vegetables


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When I was in high school, and I was highly active in church, and I took myself very seriously and held myself to a standard of perfection that was, by all counts, absolutely unreasonable, I gave up chocolate for a church fast. We were to give up something that meant a lot to us, to teach us to focus on God more fully.

My sister helped me decide what to give up. “Chocolate,” she offered. “You love chocolate.” It was true. I had my senior portraits taken in my Hershey’s t-shirt. My room was decorated with vintage metal Hershey’s signs.

So for 40 days, I gave up chocolate. I would like to mention that this was during both Girl Scout cookie season and Easter candy season. I don’t have to tell you how cranky I was for 40 days.

But what was harder than the conscious abstinence from my favorite food was the dreams I kept having. Most nights, I went to sleep and my mind played tricks on me:  I would happily drink a Starbucks beverage, for instance, Dream Dana guzzling away, and then turn the bottle around and realize there was chocolate in it. I had sinned! Or Dream Dana would be happily munching on marshmallow Peeps, and then realize the eyes were made of chocolate. Sin!

My fast from chocolate was done out of religious conviction – I’m proud to say that I made it through the 40 days and ate no chocolate. But the stress I went through, the anxiety that I would sin – that I would be found wanting – haunted me throughout the whole stretch of it.

Recently, after Amanda and I gave up eating meat, I was at Whole Foods, interrogating the back of a bottle of oyster sauce. We had just spent a week in San Diego, and because I was sick, and because it was easy to get it vegetarian, I had eaten Thai cashew vegetables several days in a row, and I wanted to know how to replicate it at home. I had found several recipes on Pinterest and I was ready to start experimenting. And one of the ingredients was oyster sauce, which I picked up, put in my basket, and went on my merry way. But by the time I got to the yogurt, I realized. Oyster sauce = oyster = meat. Blast.

I went back to the aisle and began my negotiation. I did a search on my phone – was there a non-animal-product way to make faux-oyster sauce? Foyster sauce, if you will. There was – with pineapple juice and sugar and water and a few other ingredients, and it would take a lot of time, and make a big mess. And I looked at the bottle in my hand.

I thought of those dreams – the ones where I ate chocolate Peep eyes and drank chocolate coffee, and how I immediately felt crippled by the feeling that I had sinned. I had failed.

And it’s easy to apply that same logic to a new way of eating, which extends into a new way of living in the world – a new way of shopping and cooking and thinking about food. It’s easy to see this as pass or fail. And it’s easy to glom onto the moments of failure, to focus on them and shame myself. Because surely someone will notice if I use oyster sauce. Someone will out me as a fraud. Right?

I put the oyster sauce in the basket. I finished my shopping. Maybe someone will think of me as a fraud. Maybe it is a moment of vegetarian fail. Maybe it’s Peep eyes all over again. But at the end of the day, I think we’re all doing the best we can, and I think we’re doing great. That’s a mantra I say a lot, but I always mean it – we’re doing great. And at the end of the day, especially these days when my wife is away for duty, like, all of the time, what helps me is a big bowl of Thai cashew vegetables, made at home in my own kitchen, over a bed of fluffy jasmine rice and enjoyed in front of the TV. Vegetables, made with – yes – oyster sauce, and a little bit of perspective. I’m not Mary Poppins. I’m practically perfect in no way whatsoever. And that’s just fine.

Thai Cashew Vegetables

Serves 4ish



2 tablespoons Thai chili sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1-2 tablespoons vegetable broth (or water)


Canola (or other neutral) oil

1-2 large carrots, peeled and sliced

1/2 onion, sliced

Crushed red pepper flakes

Kosher salt

1 clove garlic, minced

1-2 red bell peppers, cut into strips

1 cup snow peas, ends trimmed

1/2 cup (or so) roasted and salted cashews

Prepared Thai jasmine rice (for serving)

Chopped cilantro (garnish – optional)


1. In a liquid measuring cup, whisk together the chili sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice vinegar, and vegetable broth.

2. In a large skillet, heat the canola oil over medium heat. Add the carrots and onions and cook 3-5 minute, stirring occasionally, until onions soften and carrots are beginning to brown a little. Add a pinch of kosher salt, a dash or two (or three, whatever) of red pepper flakes, and the minced garlic. Cook for 30 seconds or so, and then add the pepper strips, the snow peas, and the cashews, cooking for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently.

3. Add the sauce to the stir-fry mixture, and toss to coat. Cook another 3 minutes or so, until everything is heated through and smelling fantastic. By that point, carrots should have only a little crunch left to them. (If you want them fully cooked (and soft), by all means, give it another couple of minutes.)

4. Remove the mixture from the heat. Spoon jasmine rice into a bowl, the stir-fry mixture on top, and then sprinkle with chopped cilantro.

Food Documentary Fall-Out and a New Chapter


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photo 1 (2)A couple of weeks ago, on Food Riot, I wrote a personal article about the fall-out that comes from watching food documentaries. I actually call them “shockumentaries,” because that’s the objective, I think:  they present information, and present it in such a manner, that it’s meant to shock you, to invite you to consider new information and make changes. Truth be told, I had never watched a shockumentary, and after I watched my first one, called VegucatedI knew things wouldn’t be the same.

I was nervous writing the article for a number of reasons, but one was because of the personal fall-out that’s resulted in me. After I processed the information with Amanda, and I made the journey from emotional response – shock, shame, anger – to a more pragmatic one, I felt I had to make a decision. I saw things in that documentary that I can’t un-see. I didn’t want eat meat. This isn’t because I see anything inherently wrong with eating meat; rather, I love meat, and I can’t stand to participate in the devaluation of life and nourishment that currently exists in our food system. So Amanda and I decided to be vegetarians, and I have to say, it’s feeling good. It hasn’t been a big challenge, just a shift in our focus.

But with that new label comes a new, or at least shifted, identity. It’s interesting how, as people invested in food, cooking, and food culture, we tie our identities to who we are as eaters. I told a friend the other day that I feel pigeon-holed by a reputation as an epic eater. I felt like the chubby kid in my family when I was growing up. I was the girl who kept a 3lb tub of cookie dough under her bed. I was the girl who snuck food and would always go back for seconds (or thirds). I ate dessert first at church potlucks, then went through the regular food line, and then went back for a second dessert; a youth pastor had joked that by eating dessert first, then if you died during the meal, at least you had the best part. It made good sense to me.

My friend corrected me on this. To her, and she was willing to bet that to most of my friends, I’m not an “epic eater.” I’m a cook and a nurturer. I felt relieved. I have mostly managed to shake that old identity, one I had hoped to shake as an adult. But it still echoes in me, and it makes a declaration like this one a little unsettling.

And it doesn’t escape me that, just this month, I published a post on this blog about cruising the meat case at Whole Foods for therapy. I still think a well-stocked meat case is a beautiful thing. I love food – all food. I just realize I needed to make a change.

In my article on Food Riot, I note that we, as humans, as citizens of this world, are dynamic, ever-changing beings. As eaters, we are dynamic, ever-changing beings as well. As a child I hated a lot of vegetables; as an adult, I like them. Our agency over who we are and what we choose to eat and how we choose to live is what makes each of our stories unique, organic to us. It’s what makes our stories interesting.

I’ve been blogging at Whisks & Words for almost three years, and I’ve learned to cook meaningfully on this blog. I’ve learned basics of seasonal eating, local eating. I learned how to cook whole foods, vegetables out of the ground, still covered in dirt. I’ve grown as a person, and you’ve been here for the journey.

This is a new leg of the journey, and I’m excited about it. I’m excited to make healthy, positive changes. I’m excited to process through those changes here on these pages. It’s a new chapter of the Whisks & Words story, and as ever, I’m happy to share it with you.

It Both Is and Is Not About Wild Bulls


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I passed last night in a tossing-and-turning kind of limbo – asleep but not fully, awake but not fully. Comfortable, but not enough. And itchy as hell.

This is a post about projection. It set out to be a post about coleslaw. And then it was about tacos. And then it was about wild bulls. But it both is and is not about wild bulls. Or tacos. Or omega-3s. Or powerlessness.

I was awake obsessing over my skin. I was itchy all over. I thought fleas. I thought spiders. I went to the bathroom and checked my arms and legs and stomach by the light of the closet. No bites. No hives.

So I lie there and wondered if it was my diet. Amanda and I made the switch about a week ago to eating a vegetarian diet. In the wee dark hours, I wondered whether the new diet could make my skin itch. So I did a quick Google search and found that, yes, it’s a common occurrence in vegetarians and vegans. I might not be getting enough omega-3 fatty acids.

Should have solved things, right? Please. That’s not the way of insomnia.

Instead, I lie there obsessing over how to make sure we get enough omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts were fine (I was Googling my ass off at this point) for ALAs, but not for DHAs, which are really important for your heart health. So then I was Googling how to be a heart-healthy vegetarian, which was a red herring that Google rewarded with only utter crap. So then I looked up flaxseed, which seemed to be a good idea, but only led me deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.

And the thing was, I knew the whole time that I wasn’t truly worried about omega-3s. Not in the real, grand sense of my insomnia as a whole. I was worried about Amanda. I was worried about her being gone again soon. I was worried about being alone. I was sad because she won’t be here for our first wedding anniversary.

Projection is a funny psychological mechanism. Not long ago, I made the 8-hour drive to Fallon, Nevada to pick up Amanda from training. She had been gone for two weeks, and I was happy to go get her early, to bring her home by way of Lake Tahoe for a little weekend getaway.

Tahoe: where the pinecones are grande-sized.

Tahoe: where the pinecones are grande-sized.

On the drive to Fallon, I covered terrain that I had never seen. I grew up on the East coast, and so much of the country is foreign and new to me. I collected notes and images of what I saw. I made up stories about the people in the houses I passed. I tried to perfectly describe the salt flats and the giant lake that looked so out of place after so much desert.

I also got a little obsessed with the warning signs for local wildlife. I saw the usual deer crossing signs, but those gave way to warnings of elk, antelope, goats, and wild bulls. Yeah. I was driving through an open bull range for several hours.

I imagined what I would do if one crossed my path and stopped in front of my car. I wondered if they were like bears and could smell food, and I thought of the bag of trash from Subway and the soggy end of the bread in the bag. I thought of the box of Girl Scout cookies beside me.

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I finally pulled over and took a picture of the sign to text to my mom and brother, to show them where I was – in the kind of place where wild bulls allegedly run around, potentially terrorizing motorists.

I worried over the bulls, sure, but I was really worried about traveling alone. I hadn’t traveled by myself in years. I worried about the small, seemingly abandoned ghost towns, like the kind you see in horror films. I worried about finding a safe place to pee. I can’t pee in a horror film town. I worried about forging ahead by myself.

So much of my time worrying is about something bigger, something more impossible. Something without an easy solution. It’s not about a wild bull; it’s about the reality that naming the truth would leave me stuck in front of a wild bull, waiting it out, hoping it didn’t knock my car over in an effort to get my Subway leftovers. Metaphorically speaking.

I would have to wait for the bull to resolve itself, and who knows how long that might take or what work it might involve. So I take photos, and I say, look at this. Look where I am. Look how brave I can be.

When Amanda wakes up and notices I’m not asleep, I tell her I’m worried we’re not getting enough omega-3s.

Cooking gives me a sense of control in times when I feel like I have none, which is fairly often. I wanted to recreate a coleslaw we had at a Mexican restaurant in Fallon, but it ended up being terrible and so is not worth talking about here.

But what is worth mentioning is these Honey-Lime Sweet Potato Black Bean Tacos from Cooking Classy - filling, sweet, tangy tacos with a hint of spice.

I turned on music and chopped sweet potatoes, relishing the loud clap of knife against cutting board. I squeezed limes, not yet soft enough to yield their juice easily. But I worked. I pushed. I heated my cast-iron to a smoking hot, and I browned tortillas, turning them over and over, never leaving them alone.

Cooking is something to worry over and fiddle with. It passes the time while I wait out the bull. It feeds me. It feeds my wife, too. And today, now, I can assure that. I can solve that problem. I can deal with that bull.


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