Skinny: Part II

[This is the second post of a three-part blog. Part I can be found here and Part III can be found here.

My mother took great pains to teach me that being a nice person is more important than anything else, especially more important than being rich, pretty, or thin. A woman of the Civil Rights era, she drilled into my head concepts like equality and fairness, reminding me all the time that everyone should be treated equally and fairly by every person. This wasn’t political stuff. They were day-to-day life lessons. Instead of teaching me that the government should treat all people equally regardless of their differences, she brought it down to the schoolyard level. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated. It doesn’t matter how they look, who they are, how little money they have.

The lessons my mother taught me were never explicitly about race or gender or sexual lifestyle, but they did explicitly cover less attractive people, physically and mentally disabled people, unpopular kids, smelly kids, and poor kids. “You don’t have to like everybody,” she used to say, “but you do have to be nice to everybody.”

But as with all parenting, there is a “do as I say, not as I do” factor that crept into all these things my mother taught me. So despite my mother's insistence on being nice to people from all walks of life, there was one person she did not treat well—herself. And she was especially mean to herself when she ate.

You Can Never Be Too Thin
There’s a saying, “You can never be too rich, too pretty, or too thin.” My mom taught me this phrase jokingly. It was something her mother used to say, a woman who cared deeply about not only being thin, but also being perceived as a thin person. Thin people decline dessert. Thin people don't take second helpings. Thin people order salad with no dressing as an entree. They keep margarine and diet soda in their fridge.

Despite trying not to become like her mother, my mother has her own habits that express her thin lifestyle. She has always loved turning down food when people offer it, then eating it later in private, in secret. Every year for 40 days during Lent, she denies herself all foods and drinks that contain added sugar. No sugar in her coffee, no cookies, no jarred pasta sauce—and she's not even Catholic. Sometime around 2004, after the Atkin's diet had its resurgence, a basket of warm, squishy dinner rolls was circulating the table, when my mother announced, "Oh, I don't like bread."

To make matters worse, my mother had been anorexic when she was younger. It wasn't a "she's too skinny" case of anorexia, but "missed a semester of college due to hospitalization" one.

She told me a story once about how she and her mother went to a dieting camp together, like a health retreat. I think she was a young teenager at the time. I picture them walking side-by-side up a grassy hill at a clip, pumping their arms the way my mother taught me to do to power walk and burn more calories.

In the story, the way my mother tells it, she is proud to tell her mother that the only thing she ate that day was grapes. “Oh yeah?” my grandmother replies, “Well, I ate nothing!”

Touché, Grandma.

What My Momma Taught Me
So although I certainly did learn to be nice to others, what I also learned is this: eating is shameful. Eating is shameful because eating is a sign that you are not a thin person and therefore won't be perceived as a thin person. However, the shame only extends to oneself. I have never thought ill of other people eating, and I don't think my mother has either. It's purely reflexive.

Without looking at other factors (advertisements, Hollywood) that have been hugely influential in shaping the way I think about food and my body/self, I wanted to point out the enormous effects that family psychology or parent-child relationships can have on a person. In my personal case, it's pretty easy to identify what happened and point to the residual effects, though I'm sure for other people it's not so simple. It's pretty easy to see why, for me, dropping six pounds was such a meaningful experience, why it's something I still hold onto.

[Continue to Part III.]

Skinny: Part I

[This is the first post of a three-part blog.
Part II is available here.
Part III can be found here.

In 2008, I got skinny.

My overall size is what I would call “normal,” and when I got skinny, I didn’t weigh much less than I do now or did before.

Six Pounds
It was just a few pounds and a couple of inches, but it meant everything to me and how I thought about myself.

As I explain how I got skinny and how I felt about it, I realize that it will sound like I was a little obsessed, or at the least, fixated in a way that bordered on unhealthy.

What's important to note is that everyone I know sees me as a highly rational, cautious, levelheaded person. My sesibility is perhaps the quality that other people value most in me. Clarity in thought begets confidence, which begets solid decision-making skills, which turns into sensible actions — and that's me.

Anyone who knows me would expect that I look back on the summer of 2008 and say, “Yes, in hindsight, I focused too much on a trivial amount of weight. Yes, six pounds is a ridiculous thing to treat with any reverence. And really, yes, I’m a much happy and better adjusted person now."

But that would be one big fat lie.

The truth is, I liked it. I liked being just a little bit skinnier. I liked it more than I like what I am now. I found a body that I didn’t mind seeing in a mirror. I found a magic number that gave me a little extra confidence.

One Hundred Thirty-Nine
The summer that I got skinny, I weighed 138 or 139 pounds most days, with 137 the lowest number I saw on the scale. The first time I saw 137, I said out loud, “I see the light!” And raised my arms overhead. I was joking with myself when I said it, but those words do capture the sense of how I felt in the presence of that number, like it was a miracle, something that could not have happened, happening. Imagine that: something that cannot happen, happening. I haven't experienced anything like that before or since.

Mathematically speaking, at 5 feet 8 inches tall, 137 pounds is “normal.” At my height, I could be healthy at as little as 122 pounds, which would make my body mass index (BMI) 18.5, just over the cusp of “not to worry” weight.

For my actual body structure and shape, I can admit that 122 pounds would be too light, perhaps even frail, but I did like to keep that number in my head as a frame of references. “I’m 15 pounds away from being one of those girls who is too skinny,” I’d say to myself. “There’s no danger of hitting that low. There’s nothing to worry about.”

At 137 pounds, my BMI was 20.8. At 144 pounds, my current weight (which is a little more than I’d like it to be), my BMI is 21.9. The “normal” range is 18.5 to 24.9 BMI. Think of it this way: For my size, six pounds of fluctuation only equals one BMI integer.

The fact that I can recall most of those numbers from memory speaks for itself about how seriously I took my weight loss and management.

The Accomplice
Six years ago, I bought one of those electronic scales that measures not only weight, but also percent body water. Since the day I bought it, I’ve weighed myself every morning, except 1) when on vacation (unless there’s a scale where I’m staying) and 2) on days when I wake up to find myself facing very low self esteem, which happens about three times a year. That's the only time I give myself a pass.

When I moved overseas, I had to pack the scale carefully in my checked luggage. The first time I tried to travel with it, I tucked into in my carry-on bag, protected by a sheet of bubble-wrap, afraid that it might be damaged by the baggage handlers if I checked it. I learned the hard way that airport security takes one look at this oddly shaped electronic device in the scanner and has no choice but to fully inspect all my bags, and me. “Sorry, TSA! I'm just a nut who travels with a heavy-duty bathroom scale. No need to call the Feds!”

My favorite time to weigh myself that summer wad right after coming home from a long day out when there wasn’t time to eat anything. I would run into the bathroom, empty my bladder, and strip off all my clothes. I’d tap my toe against the scale’s “on” button, and as soon as the zero popped up, meaning the scale was balanced and ready, I’d remove my eyeglasses and set them on a ledge. Then and only then would I step up.

After that, there are three beeps. The first beep indicates that the scale has recorded a weight. The second means it has calculated the percent body water. And the third meatheir has calculated a body fat percentage, too. Three beeps means all the numbers are locked in. There's nothing anyone can do at that moment to change fate.

I still do this every morning. At the third beep, I lift my glasses back up to my face and peer down to learn whether it will be a good day or a bad day. In May, June, July and August of 2008, I had only good days.

[Continue to Part II...]

Michelin Stars Alone Can't Save Restaurants

In a few weeks, Michelin will announce its list of restaurants awarded stars for 2011.

I've been combing through the 2010 list for New York. You'd think earning a Michelin star would shield a restaurant from going asunder, but alas, two of the 2010 one-star winners in New York have already closed: eighty one and Etats-Uni.

Chef Ed Brown of eighty one, which was on the upper west side, was quoted in the New York Post as saying: "We started as a destination restaurant in a destination location... When the world fell apart, we changed to cope with it, with a lower-priced menu and more accessible food. But we weren’t able to change people’s perceptions that we were a special-occasion place — which is why we were always full for special occasions, but not on a daily basis."

Over on the upper east side, on the other hand, Etats-Uni closed in November 2009, mere weeks after it was named to the Michelin star list, even before the year 2010 even started — the year of the Michelin Guide officially put Etats-Uni on that list. Heartbreaking!

A snippet from Eater NY, quoting EatWire, from the time reads: "All Etats-Unis and branches closed this past Friday. Kind of sad. Mostly due to management bad decision: change of key items on the menu, increase of the prices of liquor, change of middle management."

Finally, Shalizar, a first-time recipient of the star in 2010, renamed itself as Shalezeh soon after its Michelin list debut. I don't know what that one was all about, but a name change can be risky business for a restaurant, so I'd be curious to hear why it occurred.

Review: Two-Course Lunch at Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park serves a two-course, prix-fixe lunch for $28 on weekdays. For the caliber of the restaurant, that's a steal of a meal... if you can manage to get over to Madison Avenue and 24th Street on a work day.

Luckily, my sister and I work close enough to the restaurant that we squeezed in a Friday afternoon "business express lunch" (as it's sometimes called when you're in and out in about an hour).

Two courses. Twenty-eight bucks. So what did we eat?

First an amuse bouche arrived: a single cube-cut beet marshmallow, pale pink, slightly savory, and airy in the mouth; paired next to the marshmallow was a foie gras canapé, barely wider than a postage stamp, topped with a dark pink fruit gelée and a dehydrated berry, which looked like a little, shriveled jewel.

Bread service consisted of two personal-sized baguettes, one classic white and one studded with Picholine olives, as well as gougeres, or little, airy puffs of cheesy dough made from pâte à choux.

For our first courses, I chose a bowl of tagliolini, strewn with Alaskan king crab, and tickled with black pepper and lemon. The plentiful portion of egg noodles glided across the equally plentiful crab meat, helped along by the cascade of clarified butter, which puddled in the bottom of my bowl as I ate my way down.

My sister chose späetzle with Niman Ranch pork belly, crispy but luscious, and supposedly finished "with Pommery mustard and spinach." I couldn't detect much green on her plate, but I tasted a rich piece of mushroom that sent my imagination to the Black Forest of Germany, somewhere woodsy and earthy, where wild boars might be heard scuffling about.

We debated about which main courses to order for some time, she and I both dancing around the idea of "herb-roasted Colorado lamb with eggplant, cumin and yogurt." Neither of us got that. Instead, we went for a fish dish: "bouillabaisse of striped bass, Bouchot mussels, manila clams and chorizo," finished table-side with chorizo oil; and a pork dish: "St. Canut Farm cochon de lait with Bing cherries, sweet onion and mustard," which actually had pork two ways as well as a smear of thick yogurt beneath each pitted cherry. The mustard was like nothing I have ever eaten before. It was like mustard seeds that had been lightly pickled, then displayed like caviar, draped over a single, sauteed spring onion.

Both the fish and pork were excellent. The portions were ample, but not exhausting. Service was exactly what I want it to be: attentive, yet respectful of the diners' privacy and conversation.

Could I pick apart this meal a little more? Certainly. The taglionlini did not need to drown in clarified butter. It left a heavy coating on my tongue, and it distracted my taste buds from enjoying the freshness of the noodles. Still, that's one mildly off-putting aspect of an otherwise solid effort.

If you've some extra time and money to spend on a fancy weekday lunch, Eleven Madison Park also offers a three-course meal for $42, or a tasting menu, which takes a full two hours, for $78.

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY

100 Dollars to Juice Lemons?

Electric Citrus Reamers: Are They Worth It?

Ina Garten is one of those women I envy. She has an amazing job, a beautiful house with a kitchen that she loves, and most importantly of all for the purpose of this post, she has an electric citrus reamer.

Ina Garten; image not mine; from House Beautiful.

In an old episode of her Barefoot Contessa, she introduces her handy-dandy electric citrus reamer. It lives right on her counter top because she uses it so frequently. It's precisely the kind of tool or machine that would normally make me say, "Bah! What a waste of money! What? She can't use a hand-reamer?"

But that Ina! With her smile and those focused eyes peering up from beneath her swinging bangs, she turned me around.

Given the number of lemons and limes I go through in an average week, my large and decidedly un-dexterous hands are tired of squeezing, twisting, poking, ramming, jamming, kneading, and massaging the juice out of all that citrus. Two years ago, I got a little plastic reamer that sits in a little plastic cup, both of which I cracked almost immediately. Drippy as it may be, I continue to use it. Clearly, it's time to upgrade.

I started looking at the electric citrus juicers in stores, and the lowest models start at around $20. Those cheap ones are constructed entirely of plastic, and to my discerning eye, they look like they will crack if one exerts too much force, which let me tell you, I fully intend to do. I do not have a light touch.

All-plastic citrus juicers sell for $20-$25 in stores, but they don't seem very durable.

The next step up in models jumps right to the $80-$100 price point, and from there, they skyrocket to $125-$200! These are much sturdier looking machines, combining stainless steel and tougher plastics — but where are the $30 and $40 models?

To be fair, I've seen more models online at a range of prices, but not in stores. And just like buying shoes, I prefer to be able to touch and "try on" my cooking equipment before I buy it. So I'm really assessing what's available in stores, and more specifically, in New York City.

The Penguin Citrus Juicer, sold in Europe, costs around 56 euros, or 50GBP. I have not seen it in any stores in New York, but I do like its design!

There's also those "presses," which are typically used more for oranges and grapefruits, but perhaps they work for lemons and limes, too. I don't know.

Hand-press citrus juicers are used more for oranges and grapefruits. Will they work well with smaller citrus, like lemons, limes, and yuzu?

Does anyone have any advice? Who's got an electric citrus juicer that they love: what is it and how much did it cost? Or if you have a hand-crank press, does it work well with smaller citrus?

Congrats to a New Food Network Intern

Enjoying a sundae on New Year's Eve at DBGB in Manhattan.

A quick word of congratulations to my sister (above), who has landed an internship with the Food Network in New York, starting in September. She has learned so much about food, cooking, and the food-media business in the past few months. Well done, kiddo!