Friday, June 30, 2006

No que no?

Italy won against Ukraine today, 3-0, in honor of which I thought I’d provide you with another Mexican expression that will come in handy. (No swearing this time.)

“No que no?” can be translated into “I told you so”. The difference is that “I told you so” clicks shut, and “no que no” carries more of a banter. “No que no” is defiant, mocking, proud and delightfully smug.

Raise your eyebrows a few times as you say it and grin. Go to an Italian restaurant and celebrate. Wear blue.

Forza Azzurri!

Photo credit - "Italian fans celebrate after the victory of Italy against Ukraine in the World Cup 2006 quarter-final soccer match at Duomo square in Milan, June 30, 2006. REUTERS/Daniele La Monaca (Italy)."

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

John Lennon, Jorge Luis Borges and me

There is nothing I can write - no possible combination of all the words in the vast vocabulary that is the English language - that hasn't been written before. Nothing I can cook or eat, do or say, or even think. It's not merely that it's all been done, it's that I'm afraid it's all been done by me. By past versions of me. I'm not even the original me.

Jorge Luis Borges reasons that if time is infinite, and the universe is infinite; and the number of possible combinations that result in a person and in a situation they find themselves in is immense, but finite, then one can logically deduce that it all happens more than once.

I will at some point in the past or the future again be born to the same parents. My father will again hold my hand in his as we stroll through the flower market. My mother's husband will teach me how to string beads into necklaces while we sit on a white carpet. My mother will again take me to far away places every summer and gallop off into the desert on a black Arabian horse. I will hate school again, flunk every possible subject again, be betrayed by my best friend, be grossed out by my first kiss, dream of having long hair, again organize my books on the shelves in my room in a certain order that is really a code. A dog will walk into my life and I will call her Joy and I will never love another dog that way again, until it's her again and me again. I will walk up to Luca and tell him that I like his tie and again be perplexed that he does not reply. I will buy a small blue table to work on, do again all the things I swore I'd never do and leave everything for love. I will find my way to California and decide painfully, inexorably, that it is home. Some day, in the future and the past, I will be sitting at this computer alone just like I am now, listening to my husband watch the soccer game downstairs, coming to the realization that there is nothing I can do that can't be done.

Sometimes the thought is freeing. If it's all been done before, then worry is an illusion. There are no mistakes. I'm along for a ride that is the story of my life.

Sometimes the theory renders me powerless. Is time nothing more than a series of concentric circles, a cosmic helix, a spiral we move through again and again, like water draining out of a bathtub? Are we all trapped into learning the same lessons even after we've learned them,
having to tolerate the same people we will never understand, traveling to the same places as if they were new? It's not possible then to truly leave a mark or to do anything of any real consequence.

Or, every infinitesimal decision carries more weight than I ever considered, as I will be condemned to play it out again and again across billions and billions of years.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Joy of Chocolate

When I’m on a diet, I dream I grab fistfuls of chocolate and push them into my mouth. As fun as that might sound, it’s really more of a nightmare. I wake up gasping and feel tremendously grateful that it wasn’t for real.

I eat chocolate every day. I’ll tell you why I like it. It’s not because of all the words you usually associate with it. It’s not because it’s “rich” or “creamy” or “sweet”. It’s because it makes me happy. I feel it in my chest, a distinct expanding I associate more with joy than taste.

Despite recent reports, I don’t delude myself into thinking chocolate is good for me, especially since I prefer milk chocolate to dark (I’ll get my antioxidants from pomegranate juice, but thank you so much for trying.)

I’m not particularly interested in Hershey’s (which I find waxy), Snickers,
Butterfingers, or anything else typically found in a Halloween bag (it’s the hydrogenated vegetable oil that turns me off.) I will eat Hershey’s chocolate kisses, but only if there is no other chocolate available and I’ve declared a national state of emergency.

If given a choice, any choice, I pick Fiat (il cremino Majani). Recently, our friends Fabrizio, Angela and Lisa brought me a box of pralines called Cailler. If I were to compare these Cailler to Fiat, I think they might tie for first place. But I’ll need another box to make sure. (I sure hope they read my blog.)

Sees Candies are high on my list too. In honor of the fact they are from California, and that I’ve been eating them ever since I can remember, we go in there every time we see one. I pick one with caramel, one with almonds, and a cup of California Crunch – and two chocolate lollipops to hold me over until the next trip. As luck would have it, there is a Sees Candies a block from my office (which has contributed to the “tight clothes” fiasco I currently find myself in. I blame nostalgia.)

I’m not going to eat any chocolate today. I’m on a diet, so I’m daydreaming about it. Consequently, I thought I’d share with you which ones I like and get it off my chest. You know, to avoid the nightmares.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Secret Ingredients

I don’t remember who it was who said that she chopped onions whenever she wanted to get away with a good cry. Attributing the tears to the chopping, people would let her be. (I think it was Laura Esquivel in Like Water for Chocolate.)

When I’m upset, I like to make things that require mashing. It helps me channel the energy into something constructive. I like to think the resulting dish carries an additional fire that will assist the recipient through hard times.

Granted, you won’t find this tip in recipe books.

Mexico lost to Argentina today so I thought I’d provide two recipes that require both onions and mashing. I know I’ll be needing them when I make dinner tonight.

For traditional home-made guacamole, you need avocados, tomato, onion, garlic, jalapenos, lemon and salt. Quantities of each ingredient can vary according to preference. In mine, I like just a touch of onion (but I’ll chop a lot and then set it aside for my next dish), a few drops of garlic squeezed through a garlic press, and generous amounts of lemon and jalapenos.

If you need more specific instructions, I'd go with four mashed, but not creamed avocados (restraint is a vital ingredient in guacamole), two small tomatoes (chopped), an eighth of an onion (diced), two jalapenos (finely chopped), a whole lemon (squeezed), a few drops of garlic and a pinch of salt.

Please, whatever you do, do not add cream or yogurt to the Guacamole. Trust. Trust the creaminess of the avocados.

You can serve guacamole with either chips or warm tortillas.

For chiles rellenos, you need eight chiles poblanos (they’re not hard to find. Safeway or Whole Foods carry them.) Set them on a dry, hot frying pan and turn them occasionally, until their skins blacken. Drop them into a plastic bag for a few minutes; they’ll be easier to peel. After you do, open them, de-vein them, and take out all the seeds. I suggest you embark on this process with gloves on, unless you need further motivation to just let go and wail.

Chop one whole onion. Put it into a frying pan with a bit of oil in it and sauté until soft. Take 450 grams of cooked black beans, spoon them into the onion mixture and mash them as they get warm. Add a can of diced, unsalted tomatoes. Mash some more. Then sprinkle with salt and a pinch of oregano.

With your hands, stuff the bean mixture into the chiles until they’re nice and fat; then, line them up in a pre-greased oven dish with a cup of evenly distributed cotija cheese crumbled on top. If you want, you can add a bit of cream to the crumbled cheese so they glisten when you’re ready to serve them. 30 minutes in a 400-degree oven should do – keep in mind queso cotija is quite resilient and doesn’t ever melt.

If you open a couple of cold beers, you’re ready to sit back and serve a Mexican dinner. You know your secret ingredients. Fire, restraint, trust, and resilience, in honor of a valiant, generous team who I’m certain will win the next world cup, four years from today.

Salud por esa.

(Irresistible photo by Arne Müseler.)

Friday, June 23, 2006

Mi otro amor atávico

Yo creo que mi amor por ti fue parte de mi diseño original. Cuando me dibujaron el arco de los pies, el pelo rizado y la falta de paciencia, ahí fue cuando te marcaron en mis entrañas con una solución indeleble que a pesar de mis esfuerzos no puede borrarse. Sí, a veces quiero borrarte.

Sé que te acuerdas de mi. Sé por cierto que vivo en tus sueños de colores. Como tú, me pregunto si ya terminó nuestra historia, o si nos espera a los dos un destino resignado y circular, inevitable.

No te perdono esta visión atemporal que me dejaste, donde todo permanece idéntico a como lo dejé. Mis amigas de oro en casa de sus papás, mi recámara intacta con mi enciclopedia de mitología, mis ganas de no ir a la escuela. Mi mamá que me lleva de viaje a lugares de arena. Mi papá en su biblioteca y con una mano en la frente.

No es que me hayas dejado con miedo. Es que eres el misterio azul de lo que pude haber sido, lo que ya no tengo tiempo de ser. Es que me inculcaste todo un sistema de paranoia, perverso, que pasa de diminuto a todopoderoso sin dar a conocer el origen de esa fuerza que me recuerda al mar.

Me escapo a una casa de techos altos y muros blancos, y aunque veo a la luna por el tragaluz me arrastras de regreso a un mundo impenetrable y totalmente convincente - como la lógica de una pesadilla - donde cada incidente secreto toma el sentido de un mensaje divino, de un códice que solo podemos leer tú y yo. Nadie adivina lo que voy armando, este rompecabezas inevitable que es mi condena, donde selecciono cada detalle irresistible, lo modifico, hasta que el resultado expresa y confirma mi terrible hipótesis original.

Me dejaste con este hechizo, con un recuerdo de tardes largas y obscuras sin nada que hacer, con el sabor salado de placeres que jamás me dieron placer. Pérdidas amargas que tal vez sufrí, tal vez no, pero que se repiten, como un error del que no aprendo, como un eco vacío y sin poesía, infinito, como esos discos viejos que se rayaban.

Si me distraigo, si me alejo de mi sillón rojo y de la isla que cabe en mi cocina, así me siento porque no estás y porque fui yo la que se fue. Así me siento, con esta constante sensación de que las cosas se quedaran para siempre sin terminar. Con una vida en las manos bella, rica, afortunada, que sin aviso se vuelve ansiosa, rasgada, enredada.

He declarado con una autoridad que no siento, con una convicción falsa, pero absoluta, que vas a ser tú, mi amor, a ganar la copa del mundo. Porque si no soy yo a creer en ti con fe ciega, quién? Quien más lleva a México como una cicatriz, una cicatriz diseñada en el corazón con aquella tinta maldita?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Christmas in June

Day one of my diet, and I broke it. Shattered it, really. I had coffee, I had bread, I had an indecent amount of alcohol - most certainly more than I’ve had all year - and I had a slice of flourless chocolate torte topped with whipped cream and raspberry coulis. And, I didn’t share it, either. Sharing dessert is for sissies.

Being quite disciplined, I don’t normally break diets, but I had a good
reason: Christmas in June.

You see, our friends Scott and Erin gave us a cooking class at Café
Gibraltar for Christmas. We looked at our calendars and discussed
alternatives and settled on June, 2006.

The cooking class was “Preparing a vegetarian meal”. The idea is you sit down at the table and talk, then get up and go to the counter to watch how a dish is made, then return to the table to eat what you’ve just learned to make. And, each dish is paired with the right wine, the perfect combination that “brings out the nuances of flavor”. Then you get up, learn how to make the second dish, sit down to eat it – and drink another glass of another wine. And so on.

We learned how to make:

Middle Eastern Flatbread – we sip champagne while we watch the loaves being slipped into a stone oven.
Hummus – we all dip the fresh baked flatbread into the just made hummus while standing around the counter drinking red wine.
Harissa – observed how the chef made it, then watched Luca take assiduous notes. Drank white wine.
Artichoke hearts stuffed with goat cheese and nuts in a thick tomato broth – Erin and I start talking and then, at intervals, pretend to pay attention. Exhibiting startling ingenuity, we’ve caught on that the fun part is when we get to go back to the table.
Vegan mushroom soup – by now Erin and I are completely absorbed in
conversation, so I’m not sure how the soup was made or even what went in it. Mushrooms, I think. And Luca mentions something about attributing its consistency to celery root. It went so well with the wine.
Crispy polenta with mushrooms and tomatoes – despite the fact I’m not much
of a drinker and haven’t really gotten what all the fuss about wine is
about, I am really digging this pairing wine with food thing. Plus, I’m
Orange, avocado, and arugula salad – Suddenly, I’m ravenous. And this wine does have a fruity, smoky, crisp whatever that goes well with the acidity in the salad.
Flourless chocolate torte – goooood. And the wine has a smoothieness (wrong
word. Scott and Erin make fun of me.)

We end up talking about our five favorite movies of all time. Choosing our five favorite movies of all time overwhelms us, so we demote the
conversation and instead throw titles around and don’t bother to narrow them down. The Shawshank Redemption. Love, Actually. School of Rock (don’t knock it until you’ve seen it. Besides, this is the movie that got the
conversation started in the first place. We decide our next reunion is going to involve food and watching this movie.) The English Patient. Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid. Cider House Rules. Blade Runner. Star
Wars. The Matrix. (these last three are not among my favorites but I¹m
trying to reflect the general conversation, not just my opinion.)

I’d love to know what your favorite movies are (we didn’t commit, so neither should you – just throw a few titles in) and what food you think goes well with what wine. Pairing is an art – it’s not just “white=fish” or
“red=meat”. So this is what Scott has been going on and on about! Who knew?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Does this blog make me look fat?

I blame watermelon.

Watermelon is such a cheerful fruit. It’s big and round and heavy for its size and you sink a knife into it and it practically cuts itself open. Inside, it’s so improbably red. You grab a hunk and can’t even wait for it to be sliced and served. You are compelled to lean over the sink and bite into it, welcome the dribbling mess. You splash the kitchen counter, the floor, your chin, your hands, your chest (you are wearing an apron, right?)

Watermelon makes you feel full so you don’t eat very much of anything else and two hours later you’re starving and eat more than you should.

I blame the summer. The days are so hot and so long that you wake up early and go to bed late and, well, it makes sense to add a meal or two to your day. You even have time to walk on the beach after dinner so you can eat whatever you want. You’re going to walk it off anyway.

I blame anxiety. Your nerves are on edge and there really is no single specific reason and you have this compulsion to do more than one thing at a time. It’s a myth, this concept of multitasking, and it doesn’t work, and you know it. But you like, for example, to read the newspaper while you eat. You sit in the island in the kitchen with the paper open and a plate on top and read and chew and after a section or two you don’t even know where the food went.

You lie to yourself. I mean, come on! How can avocado be fattening if it’s so green, like a vegetable? It wouldn’t matter if you gain a pound or two if you are nourishing your body. What would you choose: health, or aesthetics? You have priorities, after all. You will never obsess over every ounce of food. At what price? Besides, it’s not like you’re eating fast food or junk. What is in your refrigerator? Oranges and broccoli and olives and yogurt, fresh basil, tomatoes, ricotta, parmesan cheese and pecorino. And drawers of different trail mixes and nuts and boxes of chocolate - but you’ve read recent findings. I mean, chocolate is practically on the five servings a day list.

This morning you drag out a pair of pants and slip them on and reach down to button them and (gulp) can’t.

There is something indisputable about tight clothes. It’s not a scale that is most likely faulty. It’s not that you didn’t drink enough water. Not that (and this is my husband’s brilliant theory) you’re gaining muscle and losing weight. So, just say it.

I’m fat.

Enough. I’m embracing the concept and committing to two weeks of my very strict diet, the one I resort to when emergency strikes and I can’t even fit into my loose jeans.

Here it is:

No refined sugar. (Augh!)
No white flour. Meaning, no bread, no pasta.
No excess salt.
No dairy. (Don’t panic, people. It’s just for two weeks.)
No alcohol. (No sipping Luca’s beer.)
Green tea instead of coffee.

Wish me luck.

*Hint: the instantaneous answer should be “no”.

Thursday, June 8, 2006


World Cup 2006. Mexico plays for the first time on Sunday. What do you need to watch this game like a Mexican?

Responses vary, of course (post yours on the comment section). This Mexican recommends you arm yourself with:

1. A Mexican breakfast (or brunch, depending on time zone). Chilaquiles, black beans, and fresh squeezed orange juice.
2. Cold Mexican beer. Some might argue it's too early for beer, but not anyone I know.
3. A soccer blog where you can be opinionated.
4. The proper use of the expression "culero" (spelled c-u-l-e-r-o but pronounced "culeeeeeero".)

1. A Mexican breakfast.
Chilaquiles are easy. You take tortillas and either bake or fry them - or let them harden on the open fire. Then, break them up and place them into good green salsa. They'll absorb it and become soft - if done well, the edges will be slightly crunchy. Add a dollop of cream on top, a sprinkle of chopped cilantro, and dry chile pasilla flakes.

Black beans. (Mmmmm. This is my answer to "what would you take to a desert island?") You can soak them overnight, then cook them in a pressure cooker, adding salt and a laurel leaf to the water. Or, you could buy them canned, rinse them and heat them up with a large spoonful of fresh salsa.

2. Cold Mexican beer.
I’m a lightweight when it comes to drinking (my father says he doesn’t know where he went wrong.) I will drink half a beer, though. I recommend Corona, Dos Equis, or (my favorite) Bohemia, icy with a good squeeze of lemon. (Yes. Mexicans do add lemon to everything.)

3. A good soccer blog. I'm biased, but think the best one ever to grace the Internet is this one.

4. Now, for "culero". First of all, make no mistake. It's a swear word. Do not use in front of Mexican in-laws (unless you're watching a soccer game with them.) Let's skip the etymology and jump right into how to insert it into the appropriate context.

When I was in my teens, I went with a group of friends to Teotihuacan, to witness the marvel that is a solar eclipse from the top of the pyramid of the Sun. It was a mob scene. We all stood there at the appointed time, looking up (but not directly at it). The moon, as expected, slowly slid over the sun, blocking its rays. It turned dark. The temperature dropped. A wave of awed, reverential silence came over the crowd.

Two minutes later, a thick cloud moved over both the sun and the moon, effectively putting a damper on the experience. What happened next seemed choreographed. In unison, everyone erupted into "culeeeeeeeero! Culeeeeeeeero!"

"Culero" is like you telling someone "you suck!"; except "you suck" is active judgment, an accusation, and you, the accuser, are invested in it. Culero is passive. The person saying it makes a general – never direct - vaguely appreciative exclamation that implies detachment. "You suck" comes from the gut. "Culero" comes from the shoulders, like a shrug.

When you are faced with something you don't understand or disagree with, you could exclaim "whatever!" or even "whatEVER!" but "whatever" tries too hard to not care. It's deliberate attitude. Culero is in fact discerning, but void of resentment or indignation. It is the absence of hostility. It carries no conviction. It sneers without affectation. It is apathetic, yet celebratory. It's a very clear "I can do better than you", without a trace of superiority. Passionate indifference. It teases, but it's not cruel. "Culero" is the mark of my people.

To say it right you do so by slightly turning up the corner of your lip, as if you were holding back a smile. Then you throw your head back just a touch, and ever so gently, conspiratorially, elbow the person next to you.

Now you're ready. You have a calculated chilaquiles/beans ratio. You're gripping your beer by the neck of the bottle so your hand doesn't alter its temperature. Your computer - with a wireless connection - sits on your lap, and you in turn sit in front of the television. If a referee makes an unfair call, if the other team displays too fancy footwork, or (God forbid) scores, if anyone seems to be gloating, you know exactly the word you’re looking for to use in the comment section of that excellent soccer blog.

Monday, June 5, 2006

So, do you think you can tell? Part II

Like Andrea, I have nothing against fat. Saturated fat needs to be consumed in moderation, but it’s real food. It’s preservatives and hydrogenated oils that will damage your arteries.

All grated or shredded cheeses contain cellulose to prevent caking and natamycin to protect the flavor (such as grated Parmesan or grated Asiago cheese.) Please, pass.

Buy a chunk of cheese instead, and use a grater at home. Or, find a brand that sells cheese that is already grated but without all the preservatives. Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods are good sources.

Salsa is a good way to get some vegetables and a bit of vitamin C into your diet. Plus, it’s so versatile. You can use it on almost everything: eggs, chicken, meat, bread, tortillas, even alone, with chips (more on chips in a bit.)

Salsa Kaukauna contains sugar, modified food starch, dextrose and preservatives.

Casa Sanchez salsa contains tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro, garlic, lemon juice and salt.


Safeway Soups are “like dining out at home”. That is, if you happen to have cultured dextrose, modified-corn starch, sodium phosphate, artificial chicken flavor and chicken fat in your pantry.

Dehydrated soup (such as Nissin Cup Noodles or Ramen) contains hydrogenated oil, dextrose, sugar, and enriched flour. Most Campbell soups are high in sodium and high fructose corn syrup.

The brand Imagine is a bit high in sodium but tastes really good. Ingredients in their broccoli soup: broccoli, onions, soy milk, potatoes, celery, spices, salt, canola oil. They have other flavors such as corn and tomato.


Smuckers currant jam contains currant juice, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup (yes, both), pectin, citric acid and sodium citrate.

Bonne Maman lists peaches as the first ingredient, then sugar, pectin and citric acid. Even better would be just fruit (and sugars that naturally derive from it.)

Peanut butter

I’ve told you about this one but here it goes again: Skippy peanut butter contains peanuts, sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed, soybean and rapeseed oils and salt. Plus (shame on them), the label states “as always, no hydrogenated fats (Per serving.)”

Adams – ingredients: peanuts. Even better would be switching to almond butter.


Bread is tricky. What you want is fiber and whole wheat (not to be confused with whole grain.) Safeway’s brand states “100% whole wheat” on the package, but you get a bonus: high fructose corn syrup, and – yum - calcium propionase added to retard spoilage.

Orowheat oatnut bread’s label states “no trans fats” and invites you to “enter the heart of gold sweepstakes”. On the label though, you can see it only contains 1 gram of fiber. The first ingredient is not oats but enriched wheat flour. Also calcium propionate (the spoilage thing again) and high fructose corn syrup. If mold refuses to grow on this bread, you shouldn’t be eating it.

Vital Vittles. And they have an awesome variety: cinnamon, whole wheat, whole wheat with whole grains, and (my favorite) corn bread that is not sweet.

Dried Fruit

Dried fruit is good for you – it’s rich in fiber, and naturally produces ingredients not found in the original fruit (such as iron.) If you’re not careful, though, you get sulphur dioxide, sugar, and artificial colors, such as in Mariani brands. (Even more perplexing, Mariani sells mango flavored pineapple. Why not just buy the dried mango?)

Sunmaid raisins. Ingredients: California seedless raisins.

Microwave popcorn

When popcorn is bad, it’s really bad. Homestyle Popsecret has salt, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, artificial flavors and propyl gallate to preserve color. Why does popcorn need an artificial flavor added?

Safeway’s “O” brand contains organic popcorn, organic palm oil and salt. Even better, pop your own in olive or canola oil.


Nuts are so good for you. But their oil is delicate – it’s better to eat them raw so you don’t affect it. Safeway’s brand lists almonds, cottonseed oil, salt, maltodextrin and torula yeast in the ingredients.

Blue Diamond almonds have almonds, canola oil and salt.
Even better: buy a bag of raw almonds.


I thought I’d seen it all, until I found “Natural Cheetos” in the chip section. Natural, except for maltodextrin, natural flavors (which aren’t natural: there is a chapter in Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlowser, about this that will shock you), and disodium phosphate.

What about stuff that’s baked instead of fried? Baked Lay’s state in the bag that they are “a smart choice made easy”. Never mind how easy they make it for you to eat modified food starch, sugar, corn syrup solids, monosodium glutamate, dextrose, disodium phosphate, artificial flavors, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil with that baked chip. Thank goodness we also have baked Ruffles, baked Cheetos and Tostitos Multigrain, with “four wholesome grains” (and corn, cornstarch and sugar.)

I know. Sometimes you just gotta have chips. Garden of Eatin’ makes them with organic yellow corn, canola oil and sea salt. Guiltless bakes them in case you’re looking for something lower in fat. I bought a huge bag of Guiltless chips in the salsa verde flavor and Kathia (my sister in law) and I ate the whole bag while we watched Match Point.

Egg Whites

I’m not completely in favor of egg whites. The white of the egg is low in fat and rich in protein, but the yolk is vitamin rich and yummy. I eat egg whites because I live with someone who has to be extra careful with his cholesterol intake. If your cholesterol is not high, I recommend you eat the whole egg. If you’re watching your cholesterol, don’t pick Egg Beaters – they contain salt, food starch (modified), xanath gum and artificial colors. You’re supposed to be doing this for your health.

Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods sell egg whites that contain… egg whites. What a concept.

Nutrition Bars

Most nutrition bars cannot in good conscience be considered healthy. What’s in Slim Fast Bars, the brand Andrea chose as an example? Corn syrup, modified potato starch, fractioned palm kernel oil, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated palm oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil and salt.

Lara bars. But, you knew that.

Frozen food

The Frozen food aisle is horrifying. Please, don’t do it.

Di Giorno Harvest Wheat Pepperoni Pizza, a self- proclaimed “sensible solution” (“sensible solution” is their registered trademark!) contains modified food starch, potassium chloride, natural flavors (which aren’t), dextrose, sodium nitrate, BHA, BHT and sugar. One serving contains a total of 8 grams of fat, 3.5 of them saturated, and 26% of the salt you’re supposed to take in a whole day. The catch? That’s just for a sixth of the pizza. There are six servings in a pizza I’d serve for two people.

Weight Watchers Smart Ones contain modified starch, sugar, salt, partially hydrogenated soybean oil and dextrose. Healthy Choice is pretty much the same, loaded with preservatives and enriched flour. South Beach Diet entrees have modified food starch, salt, monoglycerides, calcium propinate, as well as artificial flavors and colors. The same goes for Lean Cuisine.

If you must buy frozen foods, Amy’s is a good choice. They sell pot pies, burritos, lasagna, enchiladas and brown rice and vegetables. The products are somewhat high in sodium, but at least it’s real food. When you eat them, have some fruit too, like a banana.


I hate to break it to you, but crackers are a bad idea. Take Ritz. Enriched flour, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, high fructose corn syrup, artificial color, modified cornstarch. Wheat thins and even water crackers are similar.

Ok Moks. Good stuff.


I love chocolate. And, as powerful as wishful thinking is, I am skeptical about the claims that it’s healthy, particularly if you’re into milk chocolate like I am. I can assure you, however, that a chocolate bar is not supposed to contain artificial flavors and colors, cornstarch, corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, or dextrin, which is often the case with the Hershey’s, Snickers and Goodbars of the world.

I’ll let you do your own research here. I can’t have all the fun. If you find a good one write to me!

Sports drinks

First of all, unless you’re a serious athlete (I’m talking about training for marathons or triathlons) you don’t need a sports drink.
Gatorade (who, to be fair, has tiny, tiny print that clearly states that it “contains no fruit juice”) contains sucrose syrup (sugar), glucose (sugar), fructose syrup (more sugar), salt and artificial color. If you really must drink this instead of the water God intended us to drink, then at least pick a clear color.

Ummm, water?

Fruit Juice

You saw Andrea’s note. Fruit juice is…well, not. Despite the fact most of them (say, Capri Sun) say “all natural” they contain water and high fructose corn syrup.

Pom or Naked are good, but I still wouldn’t drink them straight. It’s too much sugar too fast. I add still or sparkling water.


After spending a good 30 minutes looking at tiny labels on cereal boxes, my best advice to you is: stay away from this aisle. I mean, even “yogurt clusters” are nothing but high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils. Cereals are coloring, sugar, salt, corn syrup, preservatives and added vitamins (pop a multivitamin and call it a day.)

By the way, the claim that Cheerios reduces your cholesterol is hogwash.

Bran. But what’s the point?

Baby food

Ugh. This is it. The saddest part of the supermarket. Juice concentrates, preservatives, corn starch. Skip Gerber.

Earth’s Best is better…but I’d suggest mashing your own.


Mission multigrain flour tortillas claim to be “a good source of fiber and whole grain”. I am telling you they are also a good source of vegetable shortening, hydrogenated soybean oil, brown sugar, salt, and cellulose.

I buy El Aguila. Whole kernel corn, water and lime.

Pasta sauce

I won’t bother telling you about cream based pasta sauces. If they’re white, just skip them. Tomato based pasta sauces (such as Classico, Prego and Ragu) are rich in corn syrup, chloride, sulpher dioxide and sugar.

Making a pasta sauce is almost as easy as opening a bottle of one. Open a can of Muir Glenn diced tomatoes, put in saucepan, boil with a bit of basil and garlic. That’s it. If you must buy pasta sauce in a jar, Rao’s is good. Barilla has too much sodium and sugar in it, but I love their new Barilla Plus pasta – it’s healthy, but it’s delicious too (nearly impossible to find a healthy pasta that’s edible, specially with an Italian purist in the house.)

Salad dressing

Don’t drench your vegetables and leafy greens in high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors (this is the case with 90% of the salad dressings I saw.)

If you must buy dressing, Rao’s is not that bad. Better yet, mix olive oil and lemon and you’re good to go.


A lot of yogurts contain more than you bargained for. Corn syrup, modified cornstarch, sucralose (artificial sweetener), potassium sorbate. This is the case for Yoplait (which contains 23 grams of sugar!) and Dannon (as well as most of the other brands.)

Get plain, nonfat or low fat yogurt (and make sure they’re not loaded with sugar). Then you can add a spoonful of jam or honey. Even then it would be less than a fifth of the sugar.


So there you have it. A sampling of food that goes to prove what both Andrea and I have invited you to do: read the labels. You could be eating exactly what you’re eating now, and losing weight with no effort (if you don’t count reading every label as effort.)

By the way, I’m walking around the supermarket for a few hours of note taking fun, but there is an excellent publication, Nutrition Action, that is fully dedicated to this type of research, if you want to know more. They have a whole article about cereal, that includes a paragraph that states that Cheerios saying they “reduce cholesterol” is completely unfounded.

I also recommend:
“Eating Well for Optimum Health” by Andrew Weil (Sigh. My hero.)
“Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlowser. (You’ll never stop at a McDonald’s again, and the fact that it’s unhealthy is only part of it.)

So, do you think you can tell?

A few years ago I was talking to a friend (who shall remain nameless) who was complaining about her inability to lose weight. “Why don’t you see a nutritionist?” I suggested. “Because” she sighed “I know what I’m supposed to eat”.

Except, she doesn’t. She may know apples and broccoli are good, and cookies and ice cream are bad, but what about all the things that food companies want you to believe are healthy, but aren’t? What about the times the consumer is being deliberately deceived?

In response to my entry about Lara Bars (where I briefly touch upon this) my friend Andrea Riggs sent me the following email:

“I have finally found someone else who is an obsessive label reader! I'm infuriated by what companies get away with. 99% of cereals on the market are full of junk though they claim to be healthy. Sunny Delight and most Ocean Spray juices are a big lie. So are most yogurts. I could go on & on...

It's one thing if you choose a food or drink because you want the sugar, but entirely another if you think you're eating/drinking something healthy because the company led you to believe it.”

Recognizing a label soul mate when I see one, I ask Andrea to be more specific. She responds with:

“Raisin Bran, Special K, and most cereals
Dannon Yogurt
Sunny D
Most Ocean Spray juices
Nutrigrain Bars
Many so-called "nutrition bars," such as Slim Fast

Preservatives are bad for you, and are used in many things you don't realize...
Many dried fruits that you think are healthy have a lot of sulfur dioxide
Many trail mixes
Some brands of canned vegetables & refried beans
Margarine and other so-called "low cholesterol" or "low fat" foods are bad, usually packed with fake ingredients or lots of sugar, so the benefits are nil. Choose natural foods, but everything in moderation. Real butter, real cheese, real potato chips, real eggs, whole milk, etc.

My rule is ALWAYS read the ingredients and never trust the advertisement!”

I decide, based on this passionate exchange (and the fact that Andrea has riled me up!) that this matter needs a more serious look. I invite her to come to the supermarket with me on a Sunday to see how many products we can find that make those “eat us! we’re healthy!” claims.

To be clear: we are not looking for products that aren’t healthy (such as donuts), but rather, we are looking for food companies that attempt to underestimate our intelligence.

It turns out Andrea can’t come – she lives in NY, and I’m back in San Francisco. But she’s with me in spirit.

Sunday comes, Luca dashes out to play soccer, and I head to Safeway with a notebook and a pencil. I can make a list! About food! And it’s a beautiful summer day on the coast!

Three hours later Luca is back home (and extremely hungry) and I’ve only made it to the cereal aisle. I have seven pages of notes that I still have to put in some kind of order – plus, my husband needs tending to.

Visit Luca’s blog about soccer and stay tuned for part II of this entry. Here is a teaser: Skippy peanut butter contains peanuts, sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed, soybean and rapeseed oils and salt. Plus (shame on them), the label states “as always, no hydrogenated fats (Per serving.)” I’m indignant.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

The List Maker

I make lists. "To do" lists for the office, of course - call this person, review document, attend that meeting - but also things to do over the weekend:

- Water plants
- Do laundry
- Iron shirts
- Go to supermarket
- Exercise
- Go to post office
- Dry cleaning

Before I leave the house, I make a list of the stops I have to make throughout the day and what I need to remember to put in the car.

I make regular, long lists of actions to meet in the name of self-improvement:

- Drink more water
- Try something new every day
- Read more non-fiction
- Watch less television
- Eat better
- Less sugar
- Work hard
- Write to friends
- Take a multivitamin (I go back and forth on this one)

I make lists of things that I know will never be met:

- Drink less coffee (“less” would mean “none” since I have a cup a day)
- Wear lipstick (What was that about?)
- Dress better (I open my closet and the first question that pops into my head, despite my admiration for people whose clothes fit, is "can I get away with wearing jeans today?")

I make inexplicable annotations of things I couldn't forget even if I wanted to:

- Pack (Before every trip) or
- Shower, get dressed (right after writing down the day of the week at the very top of the page.)

After Luca's heart attack, we came back from the hospital with a bag full of medicine. While he slept, I spent the night making a list of every one (more like a grid, with rows and columns) the dosage, the times of day they had to be taken, what each one was for and the side effects. This made me feel I had it all at a glance, that I knew what to do and how to help (such as how to administer nitro and how he’d feel after taking it), and helped me feel more in control. (I fully realize control is an illusion, but welcome the process of deluding myself. In fact, I believe denial is underestimated. It’s an excellent coping mechanism.)

My favorite, most recurrent list? Every evening I ask Luca "Do you want to hear what I ate today?" to which he replies, "yes, please".

- Egg white frittata with spinach and red peppers and a plate of berries for breakfast (at the W Hotel on Broadway)
- Steamed chicken peanut dumplings with shallots and a green papaya salad with cashews and green chili for lunch (at the excellent Thai place my friend Elizabeth introduced me to, Siam Inn Cuisine, on 854 8th Avenue)
- Outstanding empanadas Argentinas and a watercress salad with tomato and avocado for dinner (at the unfailingly fabulous Chimichurri Grill on 9th).

Frequent snacks usually fall into that “denial” category, but often Luca innocently reminds me: what about the mid morning latte? The square of chocolate you had after lunch?

I always carry a small blank notebook in my bag, and as I flip through magazines or newspapers, I make annotations I often never look at again.

Books to buy – (just the titles, never the authors. It would take too long.)
Currently on that list:
“Bird in the fall”
“The Meaning of Tingo”
“Daily Candy A to Z”
“To the Sweet Life”
“Possible Side Effects”
“The Unfolding of Language”
“Leaving the Saints”
“How Individuality became the New Conformity”
“The Curious Life of Human Cadavers”
“Another Life in the Frontal Lobe”

Movies to watch -
Currently on that list:
“On a Clear Day”
“Akeelah and the Bee”
“Art School Confidential”
“A Praire Home Companion”.

I make lists of things I want to write about, things I feel I should research, food I want to try and places I want to visit and lists of what I want to do once I get there (which is why New York is inevitably overwhelming and once I get here I can never sleep.)

My good friend Cat recently sent me "The Blue List" which recommends places you must go to all over the world. It’s fantastic, and deserves more than to just live on a coffee table. I now have on my action list to go through it one weekend and pick a “top ten places to go” to get through in the next year (not all places need to be exotic, expensive or far away.) The thought of that book nags at me and will continue to until I take it seriously.

I don't ever make lists that are far into the future or that schedule my life in any grand way. “Get married, buy house, have children” have never been jotted down anywhere. I have never known how to answer the question “where do you think you’ll be in five years?”

My lists are immediate. As my friend Jane so eloquently put it “they are not intended to remind me to do things, but rather to stop the things I’m supposed to do from rattling around in my brain”.

I make lists for two reasons. (And here is a list of those two reasons):

1. I write it down - it sets me free.

2. Because The Rolling Stones are right. You can't always get what you want. But if you write it down, maybe you can go back and get it later.

All You Need is Love (and Leftovers)

This past weekend, I saw my brother’s house for the first time. It’s gorgeous. It begs you to throw a cocktail party, have friends stay over, and talk until it gets late, with a drink in your hand and your feet in the pool. It’s black wood trimmings, French windows and high ceilings. Arches separate the rooms. It reminds me of Rome.

Ever since I can remember, Fausto has been a movie buff. It was so appropriate to see a room expressly intended for movie watching. The house is an accurate reflection of the joyous, fortunate life he has made with Kathia, and seeing it filled me with a love so fierce I struggled not to embarrass him. (Even writing this might embarrass him. Let’s move on.)

We flew into LA Saturday morning and drove directly to his house for brunch. When we arrived, my father and his wife were already there, in an unexpected, fantastic, last minute family reunion. The long dining room table was ready with a fruit bowl, bread, ceviche, olives, salmon, capers, onions, tomatoes and boiled shrimp. Fausto was in jeans and white t-shirt, flipping chicken kebabs and sausages over the open fire on the stove. The Beatles music (which we grew up listening to) was playing and he had a beer in his hand, which he flapped while encouraging us to go ahead and start. As I saw him there in his kitchen, preparing something uncomplicated, festive, I thought how differently each of us approaches the act of preparing food.

My father can't boil water. Let me assure you this is not a figure of speech. A few months ago, he came to visit and asked on the first morning if I could please make him coffee. "Of course" I said. "Why don't you get the water started?" he looked at me, then stared at the stove with a blank, slightly alarmed look.

Later that day, I had to go to work. Leaving him alone in the house should be considered criminal behavior, and filled me with apprehension – the kind you would feel if you left a toddler home alone. He called me at the office a few hours later. "There are no more plates" he stated. I thought for a second. "What do you mean? Are they broken?" "No" he said. "They're dirty." I tried very hard for my next sentence to be void of sarcasm or attitude. "Well" I intoned as sweetly as possible "do you think you could possibly wash a couple?" "Dushka" he said, taken aback. "That's a woman's job." I thought this incident was so hilarious and so like him that I recounted it to Jen, a friend at work. She swallowed. "Dushka" she said, voice flat, eyes scanning the room, "he could get sued for that".

The only time in my life my father decided he'd take it upon himself to make dinner (I forget the evidently extenuating circumstances) he decided he'd make fondue. Cheese. Wine. Heat. What could be hard? We trailed behind him to the garden and watched him clip herbs with flair, smell them and nod knowingly, carefully set them aside. We then all followed him back to the kitchen, transfixed. A pot was located. Cheese was placed in it. The herbs. He looked at the mixture. Does fondue really need to be a thick, uniform liquid?

We all went into the dining room. He set the creation in front of us and took a step back, chef-like. We all dipped in our bread, put it in our mouths and- almost gagged. He was furious. "Disdaining food is a capital sin." He broke off a piece of bread and spread the concoction fearlessly over it. He put it in his mouth. We watched as the bitterness hit him. "Mmmmm" he said, not grimacing, "this is…- Absolutely inedible".

My mother's cooking resembles an assembly line. She gives orders, moves from left to right, and strictly follows the Two Cardinal Rules.

1. No scrap of food wasted.
2. The kitchen must end up cleaner than when we started.

Chicken is pulled from the bone and turned into enchiladas. Left over tamales are mixed with mole de Xico, becoming tamal de cazuela. Day old salad becomes a spicy cream of vegetable soup. Greens are put into the blender. While it whirrs, she wipes the counter. While the soup bubbles, she cleans the floors. While flavors come together, the windows, cabinets and refrigerator are scrubbed down. The end result is a sparkling kitchen, four oven dishes that get covered, then popped into the freezer, and three that are used for meals throughout the week.

Many years ago, Tomas, my mother's husband, made a generous portion of Bloody Mary's for a brunch. A lot of the guests ended up drinking orange juice instead. My mother grabbed the pitcher with the leftover Bloody Mary, poured it into a pot, added a bit of yogurt, and voila. Tomato soup with a kick. Based on the effect it had on people, alcohol does not evaporate as quickly as you think.

Luca is a purist. He reviews a recipe book. Marks three entries. Dictates a list of necessary ingredients. He then lines things up so that if the recipe reads "half a cup of julienned carrots" they are in a bowl, cut up and pre-measured. He uses every dish in the kitchen. He accepts no substitutions. “Diced” is never “chopped”. Cream cannot be yogurt. Lemon means lemon, not vinegar. Scallions are not used in place of onions, nor cherry tomatoes in the place of plum tomatoes. The recipe must be followed to the letter. 45 minutes in the oven mean a timer set to 45 minutes. And, have you ever seen a chef chop something up? Boring, compared to Luca's flick of the wrist. And despite flawless results, my favorite thing when he cooks is how the food is arranged on the plate.

Like Fausto, I prepare food to music. While things cook, I dance as I scrub down those cabinets. That’s not the only way I take after my mother: like her, I cannot for the life of me follow a recipe, and find leftovers a fascinating challenge – in my house they too become soups, or get tossed with pasta or scrambled eggs. The inherited flair of giving food a second life is often met with a standing ovation from Luca. I never bake because I find substitutions inexplicably irresistible: in an attempt to make things healthier or better I shun butter and white flower to often perplexing results that are as inedible as the famous fondue from my childhood.

Just like the food we eat becomes our bones and our blood, there is an inextricable, delicious piece of those we love in the person we become.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Have you noticed the photographs that illustrate the pages of this blog? Almost all of them are Luca’s work.

I find each of the scenes familiar, yet I’ve never seen them quite like this. The Pacific Ocean, anything but peaceful. A green tree at the end of a winding road. A blue door. A faded, peeling sign on the wall. Purple flowers, swaying in the wind. Sand and the patterns it makes on the beach after a storm. Rocks against a dark grey pavement.

As different as each one is from the others, his photos have distinct crucial elements that define his style: They all portray everyday things. That blue door is the one you open every morning. That highway, the very one you used to drive on during your commute on Highway 1. The petals floating in a puddle that you only see through the corner of the eye. You were in a rush. You had no time to stop.

All his images, from the mottled sky to the shadow in the glass, convey a sense of intense presence; a feeling of peace. “Now” - each of his photographs seems to whisper – “what matters is now.”

Luca started taking photos when he was 14. He has always been fascinated by texture, shape, reflection, contrast. Throughout the years, his photos have sold in several Italian magazines, as well as Encyclopedia Britannica.

At their core, his images capture the beauty that exists in simple things. He reminds us, in that gentle way of his, that the time to be is the present, and the place to be is right here.