Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Death Book" claims vs what really happens

Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. Psalm 90.12

These days wisdom seems in short supply in the health-care debate: to wit the August 18 Wall Street Journal article by Jim Towey where he criticizes the VA booklet, "Your Life, Your Choices," which he dubbed "The Death Book for Veterans." Towey's allegations are amply refuted in the Huffington Post's response, "How Conservatives Got the Facts Wrong on Their Latest Obsession," so I won't go into the details here. I would just like to make a personal observation about the VA.

A close family member has been a VA patient off and on for over a decade. He will be 74 next month and has been in very poor health for years. Thanks to the VA, he has had open-heart surgery, countless tests, and repeated hospitalizations for syncope, ischemia, esophageal disorders, psychiatric episodes ... I don't know the half of it. He also has dementia. His monthly expense on medications is astronomical. If it weren't for the VA, he would have died years ago.

Now I'm going to be painfully honest here: I have sometimes wondered if the VA is spending too much on him. He often refuses to follow his doctor's orders. He is unhappy because he can no longer drive, operate machinery, or work on the many projects he began before his medical problems began. He does not seem to want to live. But live he does, and at enormous public expense.

I am not an ethicist, and I find end-of-life issues confusing. I do not believe that assisted suicide is ever justified (though in some cases, one can sympathize), but face it: we are all going to die. To what lengths should we go to preserve life? When is it appropriate to withhold further intervention and make the patient comfortable? When, on the other hand, should all available medical tools be employed?

I don't know what the VA should be doing for my relative, but I do know what they are doing. They are doing everything in their power to keep him alive, and never once have they suggested letting him die. If they are erring, it is on the side of life.

Review: The Healing of America

For an informative and interesting explanation of health care around the world, read the transcript or listen to the recorded interview of T.R. Reid by Terry Gross in Monday's "Fresh Air."

Reid, formerly a reporter for the Washington Post, is the author of The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, published just last week. After describing health care models in various developed countries, he says that in the United States we have four models operating simultaneously: Britain, Germany, Canada, and Malawi.

The Neffs are currently enrolled in the German model, will be in the Canadian model in about four years, and hope the publishing industry remains strong enough to allow them to avoid the Malawian model in the meantime.

Reid also had an excellent article in Sunday's Washington Post: "Five Myths About Health Care Around the World." It should be required reading for every American who thinks our system is better than all the others.

P.S. (September 8): I've now read the whole book. Click here to read more about it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: Half the Sky

If you liked Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea or Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, here’s another great book for you: Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I haven’t read it yet; it won’t be published until September 8. But I just read a lengthy essay adapted from the book in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and it was stunning.

The authors explain their title:

“Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it’s not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos.

Kristoff is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times; WuDunn, his wife, “is a former Times correspondent who works in finance and philanthropy.” Together they won a Pulitzer prize for their reporting on the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Their article, “The Women’s Crusade,” is full of information that I—a well fed, well educated, adequately doctored late-middle-aged female—find shocking. The article’s fascination, though, comes not so much from the data as from the stories of women who changed their lives and brought hope to their families, their villages, and beyond. There’s no way to summarize these moving stories: you’ll want to read the article and, soon, the book. But here are some of the facts and figures that fuel Kristof and WuDunn’s pursuit of a better life for millions of women.

In many countries of the world, it is dangerous to be female.

  • In 1989, “as many infant girls died unnecessarily every week in China as protesters died at Tiananmen Square.” This was because they did not receive the same medical care as their more valued brothers.
  • “In India, a ‘bride burning’ takes place approximately once every two hours, to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry.”
  • “More girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century.”

When women are powerless, suffering increases: for their families, their countries, the whole world.

  • A study of Ivory Coast families showed that when men control household money, they spend more on alcohol and tobacco; when women control the money, they spend more on food.
  • “Gender inequality hurts economic growth.”—a Goldman Sachs research report
  • “Some scholars ... believe the reason Muslim countries have been disproportionately afflicted by terrorism is not Islamic teachings about infidels or violence but rather the low levels of female education and participation in the labor force.”

Aid that provides education, medical care, and jobs for women is often more effective than any other kind of assistance.

  • “Women are the key to ending hunger in Africa.”—the Hunger Project
  • “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.”—Larry Summer
  • In Kenya, "the approach that raised student test scores the most was to offer girls who had scored in the top 15 percent of their class on sixth-grade tests a $19 scholarship for seventh and eighth grade (and the glory of recognition at an assembly)." Nineteen dollars!

I enjoy the relationship-driven fiction that has become so popular with book clubs over the last decade. I appreciate some of the personal spirituality and self-help books that aim to make us whole. But if you or your reading group are looking for a book that will hold your attention, turn your focus away from yourself, and maybe even suggest small things you can do that will make a big difference--read "The Women's Crusade" and see what you think of Half the Sky.

Friday, August 21, 2009

P.S.: Sensible eating

(Click to start with part 1 of this review.)

Last night Mr Neff and I joined friends for a lovely Indian meal followed by peach pie, cherry pie, and vanilla ice cream. Aware that I had just posted an article urging people to refrain from white flour and sugar, I enjoyed every bite. Hypocrisy never tasted so good.

Blanche at 22

I thought again of my mother, whom (in part 2 of this never-ending review) I described as a sensible person who never gave up desserts. She ate modest portions, though, and she rarely ate bread with meals. I went to this website and put in information for my mother as she was when I was 12 years old and beginning to think about body shapes and sizes: 50 years old, 5'8" tall, 150 pounds, 16 hours resting and 8 hours of very light activity a day (Mother was no athlete). The calorie requirement to maintain her weight: 1617.

Blanche at 72

Changing nothing else, I gave her a weight of 130 pounds, the weight she would have preferred (and indeed the weight she easily achieved once her doctor told her to cut out most dietary cholesterol and start walking three miles a day). Calorie requirement: 1517. A reduction of only 100 calories a day lowered her set point by 20 pounds!

I suppose Mother could have given up white flour and sugar--i.e., desserts--when she was younger and dropped a couple of dress sizes. Since it takes about 3500 calories to add or lose a pound, 100 fewer calories a day would have produced a painfully slow weight loss of just under a pound a month. In two years' time, though, she would have reached her new weight of 130. But would that have been a good idea? She enjoyed her food. She was not a hypereater. She was not overweight. She looked nice. She didn't spend a lot of time thinking about weight or calories. She was happy. I stand by my original assertion: for her, sensible eating was second nature.

People who need to give up white flour and sugar are people for whom sensible eating is not second nature--inveterate snackers, people who binge, hypereaters, people who can't stop with small portions--or people who eat sensibly but who really would rather weigh less than eat sweets and snacks.

For these people, I offered my basically Mediterranean approach to eating in part 4 of this review. If you're more carnivorous than I am, I suggest the South Beach diet instead. Forget all the talk about the wonders of protein and the horrors of carbs: by the time South Beach dieters are at phase 3, they are eating plenty of wholesome carbs. The main difference between South Beach and my approach is that South Beach allows unlimited meat but limits fruits and starches, while my list limits meat but allows unlimited fruits and whole grains. Neither approach allows junk food--what Kessler calls hyperpalatable foods--and that is why both approaches work.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Review: The End of Overeating, part 4

Click to start with part 1 of this review.

"New learning can stick only when it generates a feeling of satisfaction. We can't sustain a change in behavior if it leaves us hungry, unhappy, angry, or resentful."
--David A. Kessler, The End of Overeating (206-7)

In part 5, "Food Rehab," Kessler offers ideas for what he calls "just-right eating." Figure out how much food you need to eat in order to stave off hunger pangs for four hours, and learn what kinds of foods satisfy you the longest.
Essentially, that means a diet based largely on lean protein and whole grains or legumes, supplemented with fruits and nonstarchy vegetables. On a typical day meals might include an omelet for breakfast; a grilled chicken sandwich for lunch; two snacks, such as a piece of cheese and a cup of fruit; and fish with leafy greens for dinner.(214)

Your diet must be personalized, Kessler goes on to say. He knows people who are happy with "a few strips of bacon or a small portion of cheese for breakfast, a plain, reasonable-size hamburger for lunch, and a medium serving of pasta and salad for dinner" (214).

Well, God bless 'em every one, but to me those meal plans sound not only awfully stingy but downright unhealthy. The first example includes only one vegetable--and if by leafy greens he means lettuce, that vegetable was mostly water--and one serving of fruit. The second example has one veg--or possibly two, depending on the size and composition of the salad--and no fruit at all.

Besides, the meals are mostly beige. Where are the bright red and yellow tomatoes, the purplish beets, the yellow-orange butternut squash, the deep orange yams, the bright green broccoli, the red-veined chard, the green and red and orange and yellow peppers, the red and purple plums, the bright red strawberries and soft red raspberries? Where is the joy?

For conditioned hypereaters to turn into just-right eaters, rules and structure are necessary--Kessler is right about that. He just needs to pay more attention to what he puts on his plate.

My favorite way of eating is much like his, but with the order reversed, and that makes all the difference in the world. I eat mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, supplemented with lean protein, a splash of wine, and a dab of olive oil. Yep, it's the famous Mediterranean diet, though since most people think of a diet as a temporary privation of good things, I'd rather call it the Mediterranean way of life. It includes so much more than food. Think fresh ingredients, attentive preparation, relaxation with family and friends, delight in flavor and texture and color.

As Kessler repeatedly says, you'll need to come up with a program that works for you, with your own structure, your own rules. Just don't call it a diet--it's your new and joyful way of life.

Here are my ten commandments for just-right eating:

  • Eat all the vegetables and fruit you want. Get them fresh and eat them with their skins (unless, of course, your personal favorite is bananas). You can cook the veggies and add salt and pepper and a tiny bit of olive oil, if you want to.
  • Eat all the bread and pasta and rice you want--as long as it's 100% whole grain. If whole wheat bread is too heavy for your taste, try white whole wheat flour (it's actually light tan).
  • Get your protein from fish or poultry (skinless), nuts, beans, eggs, and plain yogurt. You can have cheese if you can keep it to an ounce or less. Keep portions of fish and poultry small--3 or 4 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards. Fill the rest of the dinner plate with whole grains and vegetables. Make it as colorful as you can.
  • Compensate for quantity with quality. Buy that $10/lb. chicken breast from a hen who spent her short-but-happy life in the open air, or that $15/lb. filet of wild Alaskan salmon. Eat half as much as you used to, and your budget won't be affected. Eat twice as slowly, and you'll double your enjoyment.
  • Prepare simple foods from scratch: fresh fruits and vegetables from local growers or your own backyard. Home-baked bread. Extra-virgin olive oil. Once you get the hang of it, you'll find that this is just as quick and easy as buying pre-cooked food under plastic--and it tastes so much better.
  • Eat fresh fruit for dessert. Top it with a dollop of Greek yogurt, if you like.

  • Generally avoid foods that contain white flour, white rice, or sugar. They just make you hungrier. (This is easy to do at home, but it can take determination to bypass the bread basket at a restaurant. Indulge only if you really can quit after just one.)
  • Don't use artificial sweeteners. They don't have calories, but they keep those brain circuits firing--the ones that say "Eat more! more! more!"
  • Don't drink many of your calories. Fruit juices are not as good for you as fruits. A glass of milk or wine with a meal is fine, but don't overdo it.
  • Don't eat junk food between meals. If you feel hungry, drink a glass of water. If that doesn't work, make your snack just as healthy as what you eat at mealtimes.
That's my easy and satisfying program. It is never easy to change eating habits, and Kessler offers invaluable advice on how to recondition our brains. He also offers encouragement that it can be done, and that the change can be lifelong.

For further inspiration, read Mireille Guiliano's French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, or Richard A. Watson's The Philosopher's Diet: How to Lose Weight and Change the World, or Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.

Click to go to a P.S. on sensible eating in which I confess my hypocrisy and offer an alternate plan.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review: The End of Overeating, part 3

(Click to start with part 1 of this review.)

I've learned to recognize overeating in restaurants all over America. It's not hard, because people who have been conditioned to overeat behave distinctively. They attack their food with a special kind of gusto. I've seen them lift their forks, readying the next bite before they've swallowed the previous one, and I've watched as they reach across the table to spear a companion's french fries or the last morsel of someone else's dessert. Certain foods seem to exert a magical pull on them, and they rarely leave any on their plates.

As I watch this kind of impulsive behavior, I suspect a battle may be taking place in their heads, the struggle between "I want" and "I shouldn't," between "I'm in charge" and "I can't control this." In this struggle lies one of the most consequential battles we face to protect our health. (ix)

So begins former FDA commissioner David A. Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. After describing how our brains rewire themselves in response to tantalizing concoctions of sugar, fat, and salt, he shows how the food industry offers us more and more of the taste combinations we crave, to the point of completely changing our eating habits. "For most of human history," he writes, "we survived on unadorned animal and vegetable products. Now we eat mostly optimized and potent foods that bear little resemblance to what exists in nature" (137).

In part 3, "Conditioned Hypereating Emerges," Kessler shows how certain foods stimulate the brain circuits that are active in addiction, how our eating behavior sets up powerful stimulus-response loops, how "focusing single-mindedly on not eating eventually pushes us to eat more" (156), how conditioned hypereating is dramatically increasing among preschoolers, and how
a breakdown in meal structure, with the distinction between meals and snacks increasingly blurred, ... promotes increased consumption and, ultimately, conditioned hypereating. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, with conditioned hypereating spurring a further breakdown in meal structure as out-of-control eaters pursue every opportunity to consume food. (174)

Then what can a conditioned hypereater do (I ask, my mouth full of salted peanuts)? In part 4, "The Theory of Treatment," Kessler offers a behavioral response:
  • Be aware of the cues. "Intervention begins with the knowledge that we have a moment of choice--but only a moment--to recognize what is about to happen and do something else instead" (182).
  • Substitute competing behaviors for habitual responses. "To compete successfully with old habits, this competing behavior needs to be planned before you encounter a cue. You need to know exactly how to respond when your brain receives an unwanted invitation" (187).
  • Change the way you talk to yourself about food. "Instead of 'That pint of chocolate ice cream looks really good to me; I'll have just a few bites,' we can say to ourselves, 'I know that I can't have one bite, because it will lead to twenty'" (187).
  • Get yourself a good support system--though "if your support system does not reinforce your goals, you're better off going it alone" (189). (Click here for an interesting article about how friends influence teens' eating.)
  • Make up rules to guide your behavior. "Setting rules helps us make the steps of habit reversal real. Rules provide structure, preparing us for encounters with tempting stimuli and redirecting our attention elsewhere" (190).
  • Change your emotional response to food stimuli. "When you perceive hyperpalatable food as negative--and place that recognition in your working memory so you can access it quickly--you're better equipped to interfere with the automatic response and make healthier food choices" (201).

Kessler warns that, although we can change our behavior, "our vulnerability to the stimuli doesn't simply disappear. We never fully unlearn earlier responses" (182). Still, we can create new habits in place of old, gradually diminishing the old habits' insistence. We can learn to eat in a way that satisfies hunger, makes us feel good, and is thoroughly enjoyable.

In Part 5, "Food Rehab," Kessler makes an important observation: "The only eating plan that will work for you is one built around the personal likes and dislikes you have accumulated over a lifetime" (214). Apparently my lifetime likes and dislikes differ markedly from Kessler's: his sample meals sound like what most people call diets, and he pays insufficient attention to the joy and beauty and delight that really good food evokes.

I like Kessler's analysis of America's overeating problem, and I like his discussions of brain chemistry and behavioral conditioning. I'm finding it very helpful, when nearly seduced by the image of going downstairs and eating coffee ice cream right out of the carton, to say to myself: "Hey, wait. Eating ice cream won't satisfy this craving you're feeling right now. It will just make you want more. And more. So if you start eating it, either you'll stop while you're ahead and feel even more frustrated because you still want more, or you'll keep on eating and eating until it's all gone--and you know how bad you'll feel if you do that. So why not just go across the hall to the bathroom and get a glass of water instead ..."

Actually, I've condensed that whole message into "Ice cream, no. Water, yes." It seems to be working.

But I don't much like Kessler's frugal eating plans. Food is more than fuel. So I'm going to add another installment to this review later this week and describe my own easy-to-follow, riotously colorful, abundantly delectable way of eating. Hey, I like it. But if you don't, Dr. Kessler gives you permission to make up your own plan.

Click to go to part 4 of this review.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Review: The End of Overeating, part 2 (a digression)

(Click to start with part 1 of this review.)

The picture on the left shows my maternal grandfather, aunt, and grandmother in the mid 1920s, when my aunt was a young teenager. My daughters dubbed these three "the sturdy ones."

The picture on the right shows my aunt in 1932, the year she turned 20 and got married. Slender, beautiful, and always impeccably dressed, she would never again be an ounce over fashionable.

Yo-yo dieting was not for my aunt. When she lost weight, she lost it for good. But this is not a success story. It is a tragedy.

Tired of being fat, Bessie decided to reinvent herself. As my mother told the story, her sister simply stopped eating. I don't know how long it took or how much weight she lost, but in a fairly short time she plunged from plump to svelte.

She also lost her hair, her eyebrows, her fingernails, and her teeth.

Back in the 1920s people weren't talking about anorexia, and I don't know from my mother's description if Bessie fit the description. To my knowledge, she did not have a distorted self-image, nor did her weight ever go dangerously low. She had a goal and she achieved it, though at the cost of her health. Once she reached her desired size, she started eating again. Her hair and fingernails grew back. She penciled on new eyebrows. She ordered a set of teeth from her dentist.

Unfortunately, her crash diet did not change her eating habits. To use David A. Kessler's term in The End of Overeating, she was still a "conditioned hypereater." Yet she had no intention of ever being fat again. So Bessie, a determined woman, came up with her own weight-maintenance plan. She ate whatever she wanted, and then she excused herself for a few moments in the bathroom. It worked like a charm.

Back in the 1950s when I learned about my aunt's post-prandial pukes, people weren't talking about bulimia. Aunt Bessie seemed normal enough. She was a wonderful cook, she was slender and beautiful, she had a wardrobe to die for.

As it turned out, that's exactly what she did.

The doctors couldn't figure out what was ailing her when she took to her bed in the 1960s. As she grew weaker, her husband flew her hundreds of miles to an excellent teaching hospital for tests. "Failure to thrive" was the best they could do. She didn't eat. She grew thinner and thinner. When she spoke or smiled, her false teeth clattered.

In 1969, at the age of 56, she died, leaving a husband, two children, and approximately 25 linear feet of clothes closets packed with dresses, furs, and shoes.


I don't believe in diets. Most dieters lose a few pounds, gain them back, gain some more, and then try a different diet. A few dieters like my aunt go off the deep end and never come back.

My mother couldn't help bringing up Aunt Bessie when, at age 16, I went to France for a year and gained 15 pounds from eating 100 grams of chocolate every day. She couldn't help bringing her up again a few years later when I refused desserts, bread, and second helpings and lost three dress sizes in a few months. I don't know what Mother would have said if she'd known that several times in college I literally tossed my cookies (a whole bag of sugar cookies devoured in one sitting can make one want to do that).

She didn't really need to worry that I was going to copy my aunt. Anorexia and bulimia do not appeal to me. I far prefer my mother's philosophy: "I'd rather have a little tummy and eat what I like," she once told me, "than be slim and have nothing but grapefruit and cottage cheese for lunch." Mother sometimes wished she had flatter abs and a smaller dress size, but she was never overweight, she never dieted, and she never gave up desserts. If I fretted about gaining a couple of pounds, she'd say, "Don't eat between meals," or "Remember that the second bite tastes just like the first." For her, sensible eating was second nature.

In parts 3 and 4 of The End of Overeating, Kessler explains how conditioned hypereaters--not necessarily people like my aunt who have eating disorders, but people like me who can't resist chocolate and cashews and ice cream--can break bad habits and become sensible eaters. Superhuman feats of willpower, he says, are not required, nor is giving up everything that tastes good. I'll say more about his approach later this week. Or maybe you should just read his book.

(Click to go to part 3 of this review.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: The End of Overeating, part 1

I first heard of The End of Overeating at a party as I was scarfing down cookies. A friend was reading it, and she told me it was about how certain foods actually change our brain chemistry. I don't recall her looking pointedly at my plate, but it would not have been inappropriate.*

When I checked it out of the library, the circulation assistant exclaimed, "They put the wrong cover on that book!" Well, no, they didn't, at least not for me: I couldn't look at those pictures without strongly coveting the carrot cake. (The carrots would make nice snacks for my dogs.)

Dr. Kessler's point exactly.

When we eat certain combinations of sugar and fat, or salt and fat, or sugar and salt and fat, Kessler says, our endorphins go wild ("I feel good!") and our dopamine levels rise up and induce us to race back to the cupboard for more. Alas, the more we eat of these "hyper-palatable" foods, the more we want. Unlike, say, apples or whole-wheat bread or broiled salmon, which satisfy hunger and leave us feeling full, foods like ice cream and chocolate-chip cookies and potato chips leave us craving more and more. Some people gorge on such foods until they puke. Others just eat them until their waistlines disappear and their extra chins emerge.

Kessler, who has a medical degree from Harvard and a law degree from Chicago, was commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997. During his career, he has noticed a big change. "In 1960, when weight was still relatively stable in America, women ages twenty to twenty-nine averaged about 128 pounds," he writes. "By 2000, the average weight of women in that age group had reached 157."

What happened--did we suddenly grow taller? Not so much. The Center for Disease Control reports that "the average height of a woman 20-74 years increased from slightly over 5'3" in 1960 to 5'4" in 2002"--not nearly enough to support nearly 30 pounds of additional weight.

Kessler partly blames the increase in American heft on "larger portion sizes, more chain restaurants, more neighborhood food outlets, and a culture that promotes more out-of-home eating," and he discusses all of those contributing factors in detail in part 2. Did you know, for example, that Starbucks' strawberries & crème frappuccino with whipped cream contains "more calories than a personal-size pepperoni pizza, and more sweetness than six scoops of ice cream"? (With my consciousness newly raised, I checked online before eating at Famous Dave's a couple of weeks ago. I learned that their rather small corn meal muffins--surely a harmless accessory--have 600 calories apiece. Yikes.)

But although the section on the food industry is interesting and revealing, that sort of exposé has been adequately done elsewhere, and it is not Kessler's focus. His main point is that if we have conditioned ourselves to overeat, it is possible to recondition ourselves to eat sensibly. It isn't easy--after all, in response to our choices, our brains have changed--but it can be done. And he offers a program for doing it.

Later this week I'm going to critique his program in some detail. For now, I'll just say that what he suggests is true, helpful, and insufficient. If you eat as he suggests, you will reprogram yourself and you will lose weight. But will you ever smile again?

(Click to go to part 2 of this review.)


*Some friends have implied that I, being long and lean, have no business reading books on overeating. Kessler points out, however, that conditioned overeating is not the exclusive province of well-rounded people: "Some 50 percent of obese participants [in the Reno Diet Heart Study] and 30 percent of overweight participants demonstrated the features of conditioned hypereating, as did 17 percent of those who were lean." I, alas, am in that select group.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Very berry waffles

Here's a lunch that tastes like dessert, is as good for you as it looks, and can be made in 10 minutes once you get the hang of it. You'll need a Belgian waffle maker--the kind with high hills and deep valleys. Mine is about 40 years old and makes just one waffle at a time, but if you have a bigger one, everyone can sit down to eat fresh waffles together.

For people who don't like recipes, this is all you need to know:

First layer: one small whole wheat waffle topped with slightly sweetened plain yogurt or ricotta cheese topped with your favorite berries (hot or cold). Second layer: the same. Sprinkle sliced almonds or put a sprig of mint on top, if you like.

For people who want the details, here they are:

This recipe, loosely based on the recipe "Quick and Easy Waffles" in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, makes an ample lunch for two, a small lunch for four.

First make the berry topping.
About two cups of strawberries (sliced or halved), blackberries, blueberries, raspberries (or sliced peaches or sliced bananas or ...)

Warm variation: Lightly cook the blueberries with a tablespoon of water and sugar. (Or used sliced apples cooked with a little water, sugar, and cinnamon, or sliced peaches very lightly cooked with a little nutmeg, or ...)

Then prepare the filling.
That can be as simple as removing a small carton of part-skim ricotta cheese from your refrigerator. You'll need enough to spread over each waffle, filling the wells. You don't need to doctor it up with anything.

Variation: Use lowfat (not nonfat) plain yogurt instead of the ricotta. Mix in a little sugar--about a teaspoon per cup of yogurt--and, if you like, a splash of vanilla or almond extract. You'll need at least enough to ladle a dollop on each waffle and spread it to the edges. If you like yogurt a lot, use more.

At the last minute, bake the waffles.
While you've been preparing the fruit and the filling, you've been heating up the waffle iron, right? If not, there's still barely enough time.

In a medium bowl, stir together the dry ingredients:
  • 1 cup white whole wheat flour (you can use all-purpose white, but it won't be as nutritious; or you can use regular whole wheat, but it won't be as tasty)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar or Splenda
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
In a small bowl, whisk the liquid ingredients:
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract, if you didn't use it in the filling
Spray the hot waffle iron with canola oil spray. Shut the lid.
Whisk the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients.
Plop the batter onto the waffle iron, using about 1/2 cup for each of 4 waffles.
Bake until crisp and browned. In my ancient waffle maker, that takes only about 2 minutes.

Assemble your lunch.
  1. Waffle
  2. Ricotta or yogurt filling
  3. Berries
  4. Waffle
  5. Ricotta or yogurt filling
  6. Berries
  7. Sliced almonds or a sprig of mint

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What most of us want to say to Congress

Dear Senators and Members of Congress:

A lot of us out here--in red states and blue--would like to get your attention about health-care reform. Some of us are terrified of government inefficiency, and some of us are terrified of big business price gouging. That’s a divide that looks hard to bridge, until you consider the things we agree about:

  • We are not influenced by the lawyers’ lobby, and we would like caps on malpractice lawsuits.
  • We are not influenced by the pharmaceutical lobby, and we do not care for incessant drug marketing, high-priced duplicate designer drugs, or drugs that cost ten times more in the U.S. than in other countries.
  • We are not influenced by the insurance lobby, and we would like a lot more direct health-care service with a lot less red tape from middlemen. Also, we don’t want to lose our insurance just when we need it.
  • We are not influenced by the medical lobby, and we would like more primary care from pharmacists, nurse practitioners, physicians’ assistants, and midwives. We also would like to know what procedures cost so we can comparison shop.
  • We would like existing government programs to operate more efficiently.
  • We would like our health care to be independent of our employment.
  • We are smart enough to understand that no government and no insurance company can pay for every possible procedure for every individual, but we agree that Americans should be able to figure out a way to provide basic health care for most.

Many of our fears—and many of your proposals so far—have been heavily influenced by lobbyists’ exaggerations, misrepresentations, and lies. This is true whether we, or you, are Republicans or Democrats.

Suggestion: put all the money you’ve received from lobbyists into a fund that provides free health care clinics for the poor. (This may not be enough money to do much for the millions of uninsured, but it will certainly clear
your mind.) Erase all thoughts of fine meals or vacations you have shared with you lobbyist friends. Try not to think about the fact that you may lose the next election and will become a lobbyist yourself.

And then listen to what we want from you.

You can do this, if you are not already hopelessly entangled in a corrupt system.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Review: Black Water Rising

Why didn't Professor Gates just politely thank the cop for checking out what a neighbor feared was an attempted burglary? If you're white and that question has crossed your mind, you may learn a lot from Black Water Rising.

Whatever your skin tone, if you like a thriller that goes beyond the requisite car chases and explores human passions, motivations, fears, and convictions, Attica Locke's debut novel belongs on top of your nightstand stack.

In 1981, Jay Porter is a young, intelligent, but not very successful African-American lawyer in Houston, Texas. A chance encounter plunges him into a murky world of politics, unions, and big business--and reignites old terrors left over from his student-activist days in the late 60s and early 70s. Is his life in danger? Or is he paranoid?

Locke, a screenwriter, knows how to write action scenes. She also writes well, though sparingly--this is a thriller, after all--about relationships. Jay's wife is seriously pregnant, and wondering what in the heck is going on with her taciturn husband.
"You got to stop this, Jay.... You can't grab a gun every time the phone rings," she says. "I can't have this around my kid, Jay." Then, a whisper, "I won't."

"Don't start that now."

"You're not right, Jay."

He stands in the middle of the room, eyes on his shoes.

Bernie looks up at her husband, her voice halting. "You're not ... right."
Read Locke's description of why she--a woman in her mid 30s who, though African-American, grew up in a nearly all-white environment--wanted to tell Jay's story.

Read the fine New York Times review by Janet Maslin, "What's Black and White and Muddied? A Byzantine Houston Case."

Read Black Water Rising. I'll be returning it to the library in about ten minutes, but you'll have to put a hold on it--there's a short waiting list.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mix-and-match bread ideas

People have asked for my bread recipes, and I don't exactly have any (except for my challah recipe here). When I bake loaf bread, I use Mark Bittman's bread recipe for inspiration. You can read my adaptation, with instructions, here. I do not use a bread machine, but I do allow my food processor to do the kneading.

Rather than making Bittman's bread as written, though, I like to try including different ingredients each time. So here's an ingredient idea chart (note that I have reduced the salt from 2 tsps in Bittman's recipe to just 1 tsp, which seems to be enough). Use anything you like from the first column; add anything you like from the second; choose what sounds good to you from the fourth, fifth, and sixth--or come up with your own ideas.

This "recipe" makes one 8.5" x 4.5" loaf that weighs 1.5 to 2 pounds. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes. If that makes the crust too brown, turn the heat down to 325 for the last 20 minutes.

1 lb – 500 gm bread flour

1.5 tsp active dry yeast

1 tsp salt

2–4 Tbl sugar

2 Tbl butter

1 ¼ C warm milk

or white whole wheat flour

or use 1 tsp and let rise overnight in refrigerator

or honey (decrease liquid)

or canola oil

or water

or stone ground whole wheat flour

or use 1 packet and watch very carefully—it will get bubbles

or brown sugar

or warmed applesauce

or a mixture of flours, possibly including 1 C rye or oat flour

or molasses (decrease liquid)

or bananas

or ½ C corn meal + flour to equal 1 lb or 500 gm

or no sugar at all, but use fruit for all or part of liquid

or plain yogurt

or ½ – 1 C oatmeal + flour to equal l lb or 500 gm

or buttermilk

or add nuts and/or raisins to flour before spinning in food processor

or one beaten egg + 1 C liquid

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Health-care reform--what can we agree about?

I had my own "beer bonding" moment this weekend, though the beverage was water. A close friend and I--whose political views are usually so divergent as to be better left unspoken--had a civil, productive discussion about health-care reform. We brought up no positions or persons about whom we presumably disagree, but we came up with a short list of reforms that we would both like to see implemented, and that we both fear will not be (does anyone know if these are in the 615-page Senate Bill or the 850-page House bill under consideration?):
  • Put a cap on torts (as Peggy Noonan pointed out Friday in a WSJ article, this needs to be rephrased: "Stop calling it 'tort reform'; normal people think a tort is something you eat for dessert. Call it the Limiting Lawyers’ Windfalls bill")
  • Put a cap on pharmaceutical prices
  • Require health-care providers to post their prices so consumers can compare (I blogged about that here)
  • Rewrite laws so that nurses and pharmacists can provide more primary care, as they do in most European countries.
Here's an idea. What if we just asked one another, "If you were changing the way health care is delivered in the United States, what changes would you make?" That might spark a heated argument, of course--but then again, it might not. When we move away from the ideological (and often idiotic) screaming at the far right and the far left, we Americans often agree on quite a lot.