Rant 37 December 2006: Season’s grating

It’s considered deeply gauche to express a dislike for the holiday season. And I confess, there are indeed chestnuts roasting on my open fire — my gas range anyway. I love the seasonal food and getting together with my loved ones over a bottle of wine and a good meal. I’ve just made (and eaten half of) a batch of truffles.

Yeah, I’ll be hitting up the nutritional atonement plan just like everyone else in January — my god, I’m only human and premenstrual to boot! Stay out of my way unless you want your fingers bitten off! Luckily I’ve used the holidays to hit the gym daily, which is a wonderful treat (and it’s open on Xmas Day! Hooray for Jewish community centres!). I’m telling myself I’m in a “muscle mass gaining” phase. Beefcake! Beefcaaaake! Let’s see… now where did I put that Santa-print muumuu?

But every year I feel a growing sense of revulsion for the annual carnival of consumption that is December in North America. This is, perhaps, the result of living in a fabulously multicultural city, which brings an acute awareness that the world is not entirely made up of people who celebrate Christmas. Yet despite my fortunate placement in a cosmopolitan urban setting, I don’t think I’m alone in this rejection of the grotesque spectacle, even among folks who identify with the Christmas crowd.

Nearly everyone I talk to, from all wallks of life, is sick of the omnipresence of insipid ditties in public spaces and the intense pressure to mortgage the house so they can buy their closest 137 friends a new iPod, both of which appear like a tidal wave of consumer capitalism at approximately 12:01 am on November 1. Many people, like myself, choose not to participate, opting instead for low-key, family/friend-oriented gatherings where the emphasis is on reconnecting and relaxing, rather than ripping open another fugly reindeer sweater and pretending to be thrilled with more crap we don’t need nor want. Some people also choose to say no to unreasonable demands or to family interactions that drain rather than invigorate them. (A certain acquaintance of mine, nine months pregnant, just finished spending two days baking, only to have her three sons and husband shrug and give the cookies a grudging lukewarm review. Lucky for them she can’t move fast otherwise I assume there would have been a decapitation involved.) I can’t recommend this strategy enough! Say no! Scale back! Seriously. Your wallet and stress levels will thank you.

This year has seen some splendid successes and spectacular failures for me. In many ways it has been the hardest year of my life. In other areas I feel an immense sense of accomplishment. Through it all there has been one constant: I have committed to self care, which means sticking to a good nutrition and regular exercise plan. It has been far from perfect. But if nothing else it has been a consistent effort.

In January 2006 I gave up sugar, just for the hell of it. I’d read one too many studies about the relationship between simple sugars and inflammation. Plus, I was curious whether my tastes would change. To accommodate this, I had to alter my eating. The first week of coffee was like drinking dirt. Now I notice subtle nuances in the bitter acidity of an espresso that were lost in a double double.

In March I figured out I was intolerant of cow’s milk (thank goodness for goat cheese!). I had to change my eating again. Out with the whey, in with the hemp protein; out with the cream and in with the soymilk lattes (by the way, if you’re in this predicament, go and find yourself some Silk soymilk. Accept no substitutes! A lovely lady at the local coffee joint, a seasoned barista, can even coax dairy-worthy foam from it for me, so it’s possible to have your cappusoyno and drink it too. If you’re wary of soy — rightfully so — almond and coconut milk are also lovely.)

I focused on getting lots and lots of fruit and veggies, and began cooking Italian food in earnest, despite its reputation for artery-clogging pasta and cheese, it’s one of the best (and most delicious) models for incorporating lean protein and fresh seasonal produce into one’s daily life (East Asian and French cuisines are also a good approach). Still connected to their agrarian roots even if they are macchiato-swilling, leather-loafer-wearing urbanites, Italians eat mostly things that would normally be growing in the garden or wandering about the nearby field. Food is still made by hand, prepared with love, and enjoyed with friends and family in an unhurried way.

Over the summer I got increasingly interested in the slow food movement, the 100-mile diet, and purchasing from local markets and providers. I made my own pasta and tossed it with gorgeous dark greens and the very best olive oil I could find. I mastered (mistressed?) the risotto, obsessed with new flavour combinations and the visual presentation of humbly cooked but lovingly prepared dishes. I went through a fennel phase and a yam phase and a spinach phase and a fig phase and a phase for just about every seasonal fruit or vegetable making a cameo in my supermarket. I stalked hole-in-the-wall restaurants and upscale bistros, sniffing out new ideas. I cooked bison, ostrich, and wild game. I tried every weird new plant item I could find. By the way, anyone with good ideas for persimmons? To me they are among the most disappointing fruit there is. Should they taste like chalk? Please advise.

As a result, I find myself in late December 2006 craving salmon sashimi, rapini and roasted squash, sprinting down an alleyway at 6 am on a pitch-black morning with the frost glittering along the edges of the potholes. A batch of chocolate truffles is a rare indulgence and even in my all-consuming premenstrually-addled state, I can only do limited damage.

What progress have I made? you might ask. Yes, yes, all this is fine, but what about my bench press? Did I get hyuuge biceps or massively ripped?

The thing about progress is that it doesn’t always express itself in momentous milestones. It rarely shouts but often whispers. And it often appears in the form of process rather than outcome.

I didn’t set any world records this year. In fact, I didn’t do anything that could be considered a stellar achievement, fitnesswise. However, I did:

  • take up one new martial art (BJJ) and improve my skills in a second (boxing)
  • cycle at least twice a week to work in the summer
  • wake up every morning free of pain (mostly)
  • approach a return to my pre-broken ass squatting poundage
  • take up running, very moderately
  • take up rowing, salsa and belly dancing
  • do something physical nearly every day, and had fun doing it

In short, I committed to eating well and frequent regular activity, and I stuck to it. As a result, despite intense pressure to fall off the wagon, and a million distractions along the way, 2007 finds me fit, healthy, happy, excited by new possibilities, confident in my physical being, and free of pain. I’m not going to stuff my bad self into a bikini and high heels any time soon (or ever), but this gift of physical wellbeing is a rare and special thing. Yet it doesn’t have to be so unique. It’s accessible to anyone who’s willing to put in the time, attention, and effort on a regular basis, and make their physical care a top priority.

This month, I invested in an awesome fitness program: I moved to a new house that was 10 min farther from transit, 10 min closer to the grocery store, and close to a bustling commercial section of the city. As a result I now walk 30 min a day just getting to and from work, and have taken the car out of the garage exactly three times this month. I run to the gym. I walk to restaurants and stores. I don’t bother often with take-out food when I come home tired; I swing by the grocery store and grab something fresh and good for me, then walk the 5 min home. Simple changes in our lives have major effects even if they are not obvious.

When I mention my house to suburbanites, they always want to know one thing: how many square feet? When I mention my house to urbanites, they always want to know one thing: what neighbourhood? When I tell them where, they generally say Oh, have you tried XYZ restaurant or Check out that little Hungarian deli or Hey — you’re close to that theatre! The priorities of urbanites tend to be different, and life is measured not in square feet but in terms of proximity to social and material sustenance. Buying a place downtown is more expensive than buying a house in the suburbs, but the quality of life, at least in my city, is vastly better. The savings in stress and emotional costs easily outweigh the financial liabilities: an hour’s commute with a good book on a train is better than half an hour in a gridlocked automobile.

Regardless of where you live, consider this: how does your geographical placement affect your physical wellbeing? How have you prioritized health and fitness in all aspects of your life, even the most banal? What self-care are you putting off or avoiding simply through your daily routine, and how could you change this? I’m not talking about hitting the gym every day or enduring a regular 5 am boot camp (unless you’re into that, then bring on the Sarge). I mean how do you feed, water, and walk yourself, and are there ways that you could do that better through a few simple changes in priorities and actions?

By the way, speaking of Italians, I’ve had the good fortune to select a house between two old Italian families. On Christmas Eve, Next Door Nonna sent over her two cherubic-faced sons with a bottle of wine, chocolate, and homemade meatballs. Opening the door to these two grinning elves holding a steaming plate of NDN’s secondi was just about the best gift I’ve ever gotten.

This year, ask yourself: how will I care for me and for those around me? How will I ensure my commitment to this project? How will I prioritize wellness?

Happy holidays y’all. Have a truffle before I eat them all. *burp*

North American folks looking to learn more about what’s in season and how to make it, check out The Cook’s Garden, a beautifully illustrated compendium of how to grow and eat year-round. Also worth checking out: Lorenza’s Italian Seasons.