The Appetite Devil and Me

The older I get, the more I appreciate balance and simplicity in food.

As a kid, my appetite took the form of a little devil sitting on my shoulder, coaxing me toward the most imbalanced foods you could imagine. I had a proclivity for fatty, sugary foods, like ice cream, brownies, fudge, chocolate candy bars, and "breakfast" desserts like, danishes, doughnuts, and coffee cake.

And the Appetite Devil made it worse.

The Appetite Devil used to tell me that the more crap I amassed from my list of gluttony, the closer I would ascend toward ultimate food nirvana. Ice cream was good, but ice cream with candy bar pieces was better. Ice cream with candy bar pieces was pretty good, but candy-bar ice cream with hot fudge and peanut butter sauce was even better. Build me a candy-bar ice cream, hot fudge, peanut butter sundae on a brownie, and I'm still thinking, "Where the hell's my whipped cream?"

All the while, the Appetite Devil would watch over me, rub her hands together and say, “Just find one more thing to add...” always just one more thing.

Then, I would descend.

Have you ever seen a pride of lions tear into a freshly caught gazelle, or watched a hawk soar down from a treetop and spear a field mouse with its talons, then rip it's little beating hear out with its ? My attack would start with the same vigor, but contained a different level of dignity, which is to say, none.

Still, it was like I had killed the ice cream myself.

I remember loving the feeling of stuffing every cavity of my gaping mouth with food, to the point that chewing became almost impossible. The oral fixation definitely sated some other emptiness, like the worry of being poor and not having food, or the insecurity children feel that her parents don’t love them. As long as my mouth was stuffed full of food, all that unrest was put at ease. My mind would quiet. Food nirvana.

When it was over, when I had shoveled the whole thing into my mouth and slurped and slopped and gobbled and scraped my way to the bottom of the bowl and licked it clean, the Appetite Devil would bound up and down and squeal, “What’s next? What’s next?” The pattern was not unlike addiction.

Descending on an over-indulgent pile of fatty, sugary, chocolately goo was a motivating factor for at least 50 percent of everything I did before the age of 12. Trying to convince me to play my best at the last soccer game of the season? Promise me a trip to Friendly’s if my team wins. Need me to help out with the grocery shopping? No problem, as long as I get to skip off by myself for to the newspaper-confectionary store to spend the 75¢ I tucked into my pocket on a Kudos Granola Peachs-n-Crème square. Want me to join the family on Sunday morning? Easy. Just make sure someone brings a dozen doughnuts.

When faced with a box of doughnuts as a child, I would never dream of taking a cruller. “What’s the point?” First choice was always a Boston cream because it had doughnut and chocolate and vanilla pudding. If for some reason there were no Boston creams, I would look for something with buttercream filling and sprinkles and powdered sugar. In the rare even that the only doughnuts in the box were unadorned — not even a jelly doughnut to be found — I would take two halves (or two wholes if I could get away with it): one glazed and one chocolate.

Sometimes, like when I see a commercial for IHOP or Applebee’s, I wonder if most American kids my age grew up with the same mindset, because if the Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity breakfast can be on the menu of a national chain restaurant for 15 years, I’ve got to think I’m not alone here. (P.S. There is nothing “fresh” or “fruity” about that meal.)

Perhaps the difference is that I outgrew it.

It’s taken years to change, but now when faced with a Belgian waffle drowning in liquid caramel and a spritz of whipped cream, I feel sugar sores developing in my mouth just looking at it.

Don't get me wrong: I still love gooey chocolatey things. Just today, my friend brought over a "David's Cookie Deep-Dish Brownie Cake Made with Real Hershey's Kisses" from Costco, and I was the first one to carve myself a piece. The difference is now I will eat something like "David's Cookie Deep-Dish Brownie Cake Made with Real Hershey's Kisses" from Costco rarely, but more importantly slowly, picking and poking the different bits rather than cramming them all into my yawing face in one great forkful.

The word “overload” now has meaning to me. A really good quality vanilla ice cream can be so divine, but you can’t taste it if it’s buried beneath five layers of goop. Maybe the problem is I grew up eating cheap, crappy food, and the excess was designed to mask the inadequacies of each component (which I highly suspect to be true).

In any event, I now appreciate the approach of eating one or two high-quality things and discovering their own, sometimes more subtle, flavor complexities. There is nothing quite like an exquisite piece of chocolate bundt cake, unadorned or maybe very lightly flecked with powdered sugar. I feel like I can really taste the butter, salt, and caramelized sugars of caramel when it is pressed and wrapped into a tiny cube, then left to melt in my mouth alone, slowly, while I’m doing nothing more than thinking. That slowness, and awareness really, is essential.

Strawberry and Yogurt Tart

For my sister's birthday, I wanted to make a dessert that was a little classic and a little different. She loves fresh fruit desserts. She loves pies and tarts. And she loves desserts that aren't too sweet.

A fruit tart fit the bill.

But of course, even in those parameters, there are plenty of options and variations.

Cookie crumb base, or graham cracker crumb base, or tart dough base?

Pastry cream filling, or lemon curd filling, or just a layer of jam?

Raspberries, blackberries, mixed berries?

What I came up with is this: a classic, all-butter tart dough base, made with the same recipe I use for a gorgeously flakey pie crust, sealed with a layer of raspberry jam, topped with vanilla Greek yogurt, and decorated with an extravagant number of fresh strawberries.

The only real cooking required is baking the dough and melting the jam. The rest is just assembly.

Tart or Pie Shell
This recipe makes two crusts that will fit a 9-inch pie or tart. For a pie, it gives you a bottom and top. For a tart, it gives you a second chance if you mess up the first one.
3/4 cup cold butter, cut into small cubes (when making pies, I often use a blend of shortening and butter, or sometimes only shortening, but for tarts, I think an all-butter crust tastes best)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup ice water

Mix together the flour and salt. Using one of the following: a pastry cutter, two knives held tightly side-by-side in the same hand, your fingers, or a food processor, chop the butter into the flour. When it is crumbly and looking a little sandy, slowly pour in a little of the water, and mix it together. It will become more and more crumbly looking, which is the idea. If you can manage to not use all the ice water, the crust will be even lighter!

Gather the dough into a ball. The less water you've used, the more difficult this will be, but it doesn't have to be perfect. Just scoop it all into the center of the bowl, and gently mash it into a ball shape.

Tear a generous piece of plastic wrap onto the counter. Set the misshapen ball in the center, wrap tightly, and refrigerate for 1 hour. If you are going to save the dough to bake in a few days, pop it in the freezer.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Scatter a handful of flour onto a clean surface, such as a large and flat cutting board, or right onto your countertop. Unwrap the dough, and gently roll it out. Remember, you don't need to flatten the dough all at once. Rather, just push it along, little by little, turning it every so often so it doesn't stick to the surface, dusting with a pinch more flour here and there. Aim for the crust to be about 1 inch larger than your pie or tart pan.

Some people butter their pans, some don't. I like to save a piece of the wrapper from my butter and use that to give the pan just a little grease, then I dust it with flour, too. Set the dough into the pan, but give it room to settle into all the crevices. Again, don't flatten and stretch it — gently help the dough find its way into the shape of the pan. Trim the crust and patch any thin or torn areas with the excess. Poke the dough all over with a fork.

From this point on, these instructions are for making a pre-baked tart shell (not a pie crust):

Crumple a piece of aluminum foil and lay it on top of the crust, then fill it with pie weights, dried beans, or two handfuls of loose coins. Bake it in the center of the oven for at least 15 minutes, possibly longer. It's tempting to take it out when you can smell the butter wafting in the air, but trust your timer and leave it in there. The idea is to let the crust get pretty dry before you remove the weights, otherwise the crust will shrink, which happened to me this time around. I thought I was trusting my nose, but the crust was still very buttery and wet looking in the middle when I removed the weights.

When the crust is indeed dry, remove the foil and weights carefully, as they will be dangerously hot, and return the crust to the oven for another 8 minutes or so or until it's brown. Cool on a wire rack.

Baking the crust might take 20 minutes total, or it might take 50. The crust needs to be very dry before you start adding fillings and fruits.

Once the crust is cool, you can seal it with a thin layer (maybe 1/8 cup) of apricot or raspberry jam, cooked on the stovetop until it's melted. You can mix in a little water or a little lemon juice to thin it out, too.

I sealed the tart with raspberry jam, then added a layer of vanilla Greek yogurt and fresh strawberries. In a perfect world, serve the tart immediately after assembly, but if you can't, be sure to refrigerate it until it's time to eat. Enjoy with a tall glass of prosecco, and the next day, with a morning mug of coffee.

Harvest Season in Montreal

The harvest has already begun in Montreal!

Over Labor Day weekend, Boyfriend and I scooted up to Canada for a few days. We spent a good chunk of our time at Jean-Talon Market, which is Montreal's largest farmer's market, and Atwater Market, located just a few steps north of the Canal de Lachine.

These pictures are all from Jean-Talon (except the last very one).

One of the first signs that the harvest is beginning in North America: apples!

I was surprised to find baskets and baskets of peppers drying in the sun in a place as far north as Montreal. These were all out in the dry, cool, open air. My assumption was hot weather would be necessary, but I guess not.

Boyfriend had never seen purple peppers before and wanted a photo of them. Gorgeous colors!

Before this trip, if someone had told me that Canada had fruit that I had never seen before, I would have shook my head and said, "No way!" And yet, behold: ground cherries. They have a tomatillo-like wrapper that protects a little yellowish-orange fruit, which tastes like a mild or slightly sour cherry with a tight skin that pops like the grape tomato. Ground cherries, or cerise de terre, are popular in pies and jams, apparently. I tasted one or two raw. Not bad!

Cutting to the Chase
Bring up Montreal, and the one thing everyone really wants to talk about, food-wise, is poutine.

I've had poutine before, but seeing as it was Boyfriend's first time not just in Montreal, but in the country of Canada itself, yes, we did eat share a dish of poutine. Voilà.

Skinny: Part III

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

The summer I lost six pounds was the first time in my life I truly lived alone. I grew up in a large family, the kind where someone was always around, always knocking on the bathroom door, always calling dibs on the front seat of the car, always scooping up the last spoonful of ice cream from under my nose. Then, in my college years and quite a few thereafter, I lived with roommates and housemates. When I finally moved on from roommates, I shacked up with my live-in partner. We've been rooming together since November 2003.

In 2008, Boyfriend was in London finishing his master's degree. I was living in London, too, but I was unhappy and wanted to go back to New York. My job, somewhat unexpectedly, turned into a work-from-home situation while I was in England, so it didn't matter if I was in London or New York. My sister was planning her wedding, and I wanted to be there for her during the lead-up to her big day. There were a number of factors. So I packed up and moved. It was hard.

I found a one-bedroom apartment that was affordable for me on my own without being too small for two of us when Boyfriend was ready to join me three months down the line.

Control Freak
Living alone afforded me complete and absolute control.

I have control issues. I am well aware of them.

For a control freak, living alone is heaven—full-on junkie heaven. It is more than you could ever dream. No one questions what you do, when you do it, where you're going, how much food is in the cupboard, whether the air conditioner should be on, whether you've exercised too much or too little, whether your laundry is in the way, whether taking a shower would disrupt anyone else, and most important of all, what, and when, and how much or little you eat.


Living alone was a control indulgence. Bear in mind that I was also working from home, so I lived in a bubble of isolation. Working from home creates a very different rhythm. No settling in every morning. No vending machines or water coolers. No cake for co-workers' birthdays. No chit-chatty coffee breaks. No senseless meetings because no one asks you to dial in to a meeting unless is necessary. Sometimes I felt lonely, but I had so many things to keep reign my controlling command over that it diverted my attention.

Other elements of my lifestyle changed, too, like the fact that I suddenly enjoyed returning phone calls because my daily interactions with other human beings was fairly limited. I'm not a highly social person, so although I did (and still do) have a core group of friends and family in New York, there certainly were many days when I didn't see or talk to any of them.

Having control over everything meant I could have super detailed control over a few things, so I picked exercising, eating healthful foods in small portions, and monitoring the exact number of my weight in pounds and ounces. My new neighborhood had a free, outdoor, public pool with adult lap swim on weekdays. I started swimming. It also had a track. I started jogging at night and walking in the morning before work. It also had two high streets, as they would call them in London, or main roads with businesses that I was interested in getting to know well. I took up walking on my lunch breaks to explore them.

Actually, I had tried to take up jogging in the past, but I am a terrible runner and I never enjoyed it. This time, I came up with a new strategy. As I ran, I would coach myself by saying, "All these out of shape people join the Army and within 2 days of basic training, they are able to run 3 miles. If they can run 3 miles, so can I! I am young and fit, and if they can do it, damn it, I can do it better!"

My neighborhood also had two or three fiercely competitive produce markets. When I moved from overseas, I didn't bring with me any pantry items, such as flour, sugar, spices, vinegars, and canned goods, as one would when moving locally. Aside from the fact that all those things are heavy to carry and I did all my grocery shopping on foot, I thought to myself, "The pantry is already empty of all processed foods, so I might as well try to keep it that way as long as I can." My diet that summer consisted about 85 percent of fresh food: vegetables and fruit, dairy (mostly yogurt and milk, and feta cheese), and eggs. I ate pita bread, a brand that was made locally, half a piece at a time, so that a bag of 10 would last me nearly two weeks, and I ate cold fish, like tuna, herring, and smoked salmon. The temperature that year was blisteringly hot, so I avoided cooking as much as possible. From time to time I grilled some zucchini or boiled an egg, but mostly, the stove was off.

Halfway through the summer, I lugged home a sack of flour and baked a few batches of homemade bread. Seeing as it was 90 degrees and humid in my kitchen most days—ideal conditions for getting bread to rise—I figured I might as well make use of it. It didn't last long. I gave up bread baking the day my glasses literally slipped off my face from sweat.

I still ate a little bit of chocolate, and dried fruit like raisins, figs, and dates, muesli if I was feeling fatigued, but there really wasn't much packaged food in the house. It's hard to see how much food we have around us at any given time, but take a peek in your cupboard or refrigerator. Now imagine it without all the items that are in a can, bottle, jar, or box.

Another thing I started obsessing over was feeling hungry. I don't want to use the word "hunger" because it's not like I was starving. What I'm talking about is the "hungry" feeling one gets after exercising for a long time, but not being able to eat for another hour or two afterward.

When weight loss people—and by that I mean advertisers, product vendors, self-promotional weight loss authors/doctors/fitness experts, and people who give testimonials about losing weight—proclaim that you can lose weight without ever feeling hungry, I think to myself, "Well, okay, you're not really going to lose all that much weight then." You can lose weight without feeling hungry if you just want to lose some weight; but if you want your body to be small and to have a minimal amount of fat on it, feeling hungry is crucial.

(Okay, there might be people out there who have always been skinny and tend to not feel hungry often, but the majority of us just aren't like that.)

Weight loss people make it sound like having a hunger pang or two, or having an empty belly ever, is not an option. It's off the table.

But why?

The reason advertisers say you can lose weight without ever feeling hungry is because they're trying to sell you food! They want you to eat more (of their product), not less. Companies that sell diet food must convince people to eat it—a lot of it.

If you feel hungry, then your body is going to start using the calories that are already on your body. This is what I started thinking about all the time. In fact, I developed a mantra to remind myself that this feeling was positive and that feeling hungry means results: "Eating the fat, eating the fat, eating the fat." The body is burning its fat.

The summer that I got skinny is the only time in my life I ever embraced the feeling of being hungry. It's tough to do, but being in an isolation bubble made it easy. I tried to make sure I could feel an empty or near-empty stomach before every meal. At night, as bedtime was nearing, I would sometimes feel a bit hungry and I would sometimes eat a quarter cup of muesli with skim milk, a light a nutritious snack. But as I began to embrace the empty stomach as a sign of weight loss, I turned my thoughts around. Being hungry before a meal also became something I looked forward to because I truly enjoyed eating so much more that way. So before bedtime, if I had been feeling hungry, I'd think: "Hungry is a sign that I'll be losing more weight. And, it will be easy to get through the next 6 or 7 hours of feeling hungry if I do it while asleep. Plus, if I go to bed a little bit peckish, I'll wake up more excited than ever to eat breakfast." Win-win-win.

Another discovery: exercising on an empty stomach doesn't make you feel immediately famished. Rather, it kills your appetite for a bit. This bit of wisdom was something I learned through experience a few years earlier when I first started working out at a gym. By the time I arrived at the gym, I'd want a snack; but I wouldn't have anything on hand. So I'd pump my arms and legs for 40 minutes on the elliptical machine, jog a mile, curl my biceps a few times, and drink a lot of water. By the time I finished my workout, I wouldn't even be able to think about food. There was a 20- or 30-minute window when I just didn't feel like eating. But combined with the whole exercise session, this 20-minute window could easily grow into a two-hour period all told. Two hours of not thinking about food? That was a real new tactic.

Basically, I started doing any activity or practicing any state of mind that helped me feel good about the lack of food in my belly. Shopping (though mostly it was window-shopping) worked great, too. I could be away from home, and thus away from the refrigerator, for several hours, on my feet, walking around, navigating aisles, climbing escalators, carrying heavy bags home (when it was grocery shopping), and not having an excuse to eat for hours. I'd have a dinner meal planned on my head for when I got home, which meant I had no excuse to eat take-away food in the department store cafes, or the bakeries that were en route between the subway stop and my house, or any other junky fast food.

Losing weight has become more important to Americans than being thin. No one cares so much anymore about “thin.” Now we care about “weight loss.” Dieting products, not to mention entire industries, have thrived for decades on weight loss, but now more than ever, we are truly captivated by it. We treat weight loss as an accomplishment. Several television shows are dedicated to watching bodies drop weight. Winners of reality TV shows are rewarded for weight loss, not for their final size. We no longer care so much about the final result, as long as the total loss is a sizable number. “But she lost 150 pounds! Who cares if she’s still a size 10!” It’s, “look at the deduction,” rather than, “what size should this person be?”

So big deal. I lost six pounds. That's not a big enough number to be significant to anyone but me.

However, the whole journey meant something, and having a smaller body meant something. It was not a black-or-white, good-or-bad experience. That snapshot of my life reminds me what I'm capable of, while also reminding me what I'm not doing now. Any time I am being hard on myself, I turn around this notion of what I'm not doing now to mean I'm failing. Can I control these thoughts and feelings, the same way I was able to control my weight? I don't even know any more. My fear is to admit that they might be controlling me.

I owe Boyfriend a very special thank you for putting up with me, and for his gentle efforts every day to help me see myself through his eyes.

[This is the third and final post of a three-part blog.
Part I can be found here and
Part II can be found here.]