Friday, February 22, 2013

Junk Food is Fascinating!

I’m back from New Orleans and back in the lab, where things are going a little haywire this week.  But hope is not lost, and I’m sure I’ll bounce back from the latest setback.  I didn’t get into science because the work was easy or the pay was great.  I got into it because I was interested in getting as close to the truth as possible, and after all these years in the lab, science still seems like one of the best ways to ask questions about the truth.  Nevertheless, I am glad today is Friday!

I came across this fascinating New York Times Magazine article about the science of junk food, and oh man, is this a good read.  It’s a long piece but absolutely filled with funny anecdotes and stunning confessions of how hyper-palatable and nutritionally empty “food” is developed, marketed, and sold.  I’m going to limit myself to sharing three quotes from the article with you, just to whet your appetite.  The first quote makes me want to cry; such is the constant battle between the private sector and public health.

“There’s no moral issue for me,” he said. “I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.”

Second, a fun food science tidbit!

This contradiction is known as “sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.

And third, ain’t this the truth.

With production costs trimmed and profits coming in, the next question was how to expand the franchise, which they did by turning to one of the cardinal rules in processed food: When in doubt, add sugar.

Happy weekend and healthy eating, my dears!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

New Orleans in the Fresh Air

Flower and Beads

Let’s head back to New Orleans, shall we?  One of the things that surprised me the most about our trip is that we spent most of our time in the sunshine and wind, enjoying what the city had to offer outside.  I already mentioned our visit to the cemeteries on Canal Street and the ferry ride on Saturday.  That evening, we had an amazing, amazing dinner at Salu, a tapas restaurant, which I’ll tell you about next time.  For now, I’d like to tell you a little more about our explorations of the city.

Last Sunday, we decided that our field trip would be a visit to City Park.  This park has a beautiful (and free!) outdoor sculpture exhibit, and we were all excited to see some art and wander through the park.  We took a cab from our section of town (Canal Street in the French Quarter), which gave us a chance to see the spectacular homes and bed-and-breakfasts along Esplanade Avenue.  I am in love with Esplanade Avenue.

Ah So Gorgeous

So Pretty     

The view of that street alone was worth the cab fare.  But City Park, it turns out, is the perfect place to spend a lazy, touristy Sunday afternoon.

Naked Archer

The Ducks

Looks Like Cycladic Art

City Park has a lot of good sitting spaces in which to take pictures of your friends.

Christy and Sam at City Park

That’s Christy and Sam.  You can find more of Sam at her blog, Wanderlust and Lollygagging.  I like to call her our trip planner with the mostest, as she did the bulk of the work organizing our NOLA fun.  She’s the best. 

And here is Erin, our bachelorette!

Erin at City Park

Yes, she is always that photogenic.  Imagine what she’s going to look like on her wedding day!

From City Park, we headed onward to gastronomic delights in the form of Irish coffee and beignets at Café Beignet.

Erin Likes Beignets

Tonya at Cafe Beignet

That’s my friend Tonya about to sip her coffee.  Funny story about Tonya and coffee in New Orleans: she is an admitted coffee snob who says that bad coffee tastes like “piss water.”  Tonya couldn’t even believe I was drinking the free hotel coffee with breakfast because it was so bad.  (It was bad; I’m just a creature of habit who will drink coffee, even terrible hotel coffee.)  But everywhere we went in New Orleans, they served us chicory coffee, which I kinda enjoyed but Tonya didn’t.  I think she said the Café Beignet coffee she’s drinking here was okay.  The beignets, on the other hand, were an undeniable hit.


We had a blizzard of powdered sugar flying around our table as the wind did a number on us.  But the mess was worth it.  I could go for a fresh beignet right now.

From Café Beignet, we continued our outdoor eating and drinking adventure by heading to Pat O’Brien’s for hurricanes and mint juleps.  My friends all ordered hurricanes.  I was afraid that a hurricane would be too much for me, so I got a mint julep instead.  It was delicious.

Me at Pat OBriens NOLA 2013

{Photo taken by Christy}

From Pat O’Brien’s we hopped on to the self-proclaimed oldest bar in America, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.  Here we moved our party inside and drank disappointing Pimm’s cups, but I enjoyed the candlelight and company.  Then we hit a very cool bar on Royal Street, where our server astutely noted that I am the Charlotte of my Texas friends.  I’m pretty sure I have the same pearl necklace that she’s wearing in the Wikipedia photo!

From Royal Street we meandered back toward Canal Street and found dinner at a Cajun diner called Daisy Dukes, where I ate a very yummy vegetarian po’ boy sandwich.  People kept asking me, “What makes it a po’ boy?” to which I kept responding, “I don’t know!”  And I secretly wondered, Is a vegetarian po’ boy even legal?  According to the ultimate authority on everything, a po’ boy is a sub sandwich on fluffy French bread that “almost always contains meat.”  Well, instead of meat, mine came with mushrooms and olives in a well-seasoned tomato sauce, topped with some melted cheese, and it was terrific.  I ate a not-so-vegetarian cup of gumbo alongside the po’ boy, and it was also terrific.  More on my adventures in meatless eating in New Orleans soon.

Altogether, it was an amazing, memorable day, wandering through City Park, maneuvering our way through the crowds on Bourbon Street, enjoying our friendly neighbors in Café Beignet.  They were even kind enough to take this photo of the five of us together.

Cafe Beignet_via Christy on FB

{Photo via Christy’s camera}

Gah, I just love New Orleans so much!  And it’s not just the booze and the doughnuts, I promise.  It’s the history, the culture, the architecture, and at this stage in my life, the distinct feeling that in New Orleans, I am most definitely not in Texas.  Unlike a lot of transplants, I think living in Texas is not so bad, and I try to maintain an upbeat attitude about it.  Where else would I have grown so bold about being vegetarian and asking for what I want without hesitation?  But New Orleans was a welcome break from Texas, and I can’t wait for my next chance to explore that beautiful, crazy city.  It’s a place I hope to return to again and again.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Inspired by NOLA

NOLA Sometimes

{Inspired by NOLA}

Today was a lovely day, our second full day in New Orleans.  It’s funny to me that there are many reasons why I shouldn’t like this city: I don’t love crowds, loud bars and restaurants exhaust me, I stop drinking after two glasses of anything, and it’s tough trying to eat as a vegetarian.  But then there’s everything else about the New Orleans experience: the live music on street corners, the charming locals, the gorgeous architecture, the way this city is just steeped in history, the way that everyone we encountered this weekend was so excited to be in the Crescent City.  It’s a really magical place, and I can remember feeling it more than ten years ago when I first visited the city.  The magic is still there, but this time, I’ve had more time to enjoy it.

This afternoon we wandered around the French Market.  Inside one of the charming art shops, I found a print of a bird and a snail.  Next to the bird were the words, “Sometimes quickly.”  Next to the snail were the words, “Sometimes slowly.”  There were also lovely pieces with quotes from Rumi and Hafiz.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that I had a moment of transcendence with the art, just soaking in the beauty and wisdom of those images, those words.  I’ve been loving my project of pairing Rumi quotes with images, so finding Rumi among the art in New Orleans was just lovely.

Today’s image is my attempt to take home a memory of the art I saw today, just a little reminder to let things move at their own pace.  Like the birds and the snails and the turtles, I too have my own pace.  So do you.  And I think we are at our best when we are able to move through life at the pace that’s right for us.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Greetings from the Crescent City

I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve ridden a ferry.  Hello from New Orleans!

New Orleans Near Algiers Point

My friends and I are here this weekend to celebrate our bride-to-be, Erin, in all her bachelorette glory.  We spent today walking around, visiting the cemeteries on Canal Street, trying on shoes in Aerosoles in Jackson Square, and eating South Indian food.  Well, okay, that’s what I was eating.  I’m having a terrible time trying to be a vegetarian in this town, and it’s my fault.  Last night I decided to indulge in jambalaya, and today, I ordered a side salad and in my hunger/excitement about finally sitting down to lunch, I forgot to tell our server to hold the bacon.  The bacon was delicious, but the jambalaya was disappointing.  I’ve had much, much better in Evanston, Illinois, at a terrific Cajun restaurant called Dixie Kitchen.  I miss Dixie Kitchen.

But I’m having fun, and I’m glad I’m here, despite my vegetarian mishaps.  Tonight we’re heading out for tapas and drinks (and possibly beignets and coffee!), and I’m completely overwhelmed by the architectural beauty of this city.  For now, I want to share a few of my favorite photos from the cemeteries today.

Contemplating Statue   Flowers on Grave

Leontine's Grave

I hope you are having a good weekend, wherever you are!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

You Know

Happy Valentine’s Day, my sweet readers!  I brought you flowers.

Yellow Rose

A yellow rose for friendship.  Incidentally, yellow roses are my mother’s favorite, and of course we can’t talk about yellow roses without a nod to Texas.  (I’m going to skip the close feminist reading of that song for now.)

I asked my dear friend Ammie to be my valentine, and she said yes!  But I hope she doesn’t mind sharing, because I want all of you to be my valentines.  I can’t help it—this holiday gets me feeling all polyamorous.

(So, will you be my valentine?  Please say yes.)

Happy, happy day to you.  You know how I feel about you.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Don’t Be a Rock

Rumi 2_wildflowers JPEG 

{Quote source}

In other words, don’t be a Simon and Garfunkel song!  But you can listen to it—it’s a lovely song.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Speaking of Love…

Grey Boots 2_11_13 JPEG cropped

{Image source: Screen shot from}

I’m normally a flats-wearing woman, but these heeled grey boots* have totally stolen my heart.  I love the color, the height, the fun wooden heels, and the buckle details.  Best of all, they’re vegan!  Right now they’re on sale for $40 at, and I am having a very, very hard time convincing myself that I don’t need a pair of tall grey boots.  Plus boots season is waning here in Texas, and I already own two pairs of boots.  Do I need a third?  I think not.  But this pair is awfully adorable.

Materialism at its finest, friends.  You’re welcome.

* Boots first spotted on Already Pretty.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Bold Move

Saturday at Home

Last weekend, I took fate into my own hands.  I renewed my lease, thus declaring my intention to say in College Station until August 2014 or thereabouts.

Some of you may recall that I’ve been in a state of career limbo for over a year and a half now.  18 months is a long time to feel uncertain about your future—it gets old pretty fast.  The reason for this uncertainty has to do with the way that NIH funds projects and the way that my project in particular has unfolded.  Generally speaking, people get “new” funding for a project when that project is in its final stages before publication.  In other words, they get funding when the bulk of work is already done, which suggests to me that NIH’s funding mechanisms are very conservative: risky projects don’t get funding.  NIH seems to actively avoid risk, which means that researchers have to leap into risky projects without a net.  My project exists because I (and my boss) was (were) willing to take a big risk.  We absorbed the risk.  And we submitted grants for funding, two of which were rejected last year and a resubmission which is now in the system for review.  Without getting into the nitty-gritties about NIH grants, I’ll say that I am optimistic that we’re going to get funding this time.  That’s the first reason I renewed my lease.

The second reason is that my big goals this year are to finish two big projects: my first-author paper and the Detroit Marathon.  Those things are substantial, time-consuming projects, and I want to focus on my energy on them, not on moving and finding a new apartment.  Simplicity, friends.  I like simplicity.

The third reason is that I’ve grown very tired of not knowing certain basic things, like where I’ll be living in a year.  I am a planner by nature, and not having a plan, a basic outline of sorts, causes me a lot of stress and discomfort.  I thrive with structure and routines in my life; spontaneity is not my strength.  I don’t have every minute of every day planned in advance, but I have an idea of what the days will look like.  By renewing my lease, I have ensured some stability in my life, and it makes me feel better to be done with that decision.  Obviously, if the grant is not funded and I don’t stay in my current position, I will be job-hunting in order to pay the bills.  But I also recognize that if I’m no longer doing research full-time, that might enable to me to pursue teaching opportunities that could help me make the transition from research scientist to teaching scientist.  I’ll be trying to make that transition at some point in the future; I just don’t know when.

Finally, and this is perhaps the quietest reason, I want to start working on a new project.  Actually, I’m already working on it, and I’ll say more about it soon, but suffice to say that my plate is full this year—full of projects, optimism, and faith that things will work out.  I am making a bold move and pursuing the things that I want to do, intellectually, athletically, spiritually.  I need a home base for all my adventures, and my little apartment has definitely become home in the 3+ years since I moved into this space.

I suppose my bold move is more of a non-move, but it feels very empowering to say, “This is where I am staying.”  Plus I can start working on my patio garden soon because I know I’ll be here for the summer!

Finally, on a completely unrelated note, I picked up a bottle of this lovely stuff and can’t wait to fill my kitchen with a chocolate-and-mint-scented fog. 

Pure Peppermint Extract

Friday, February 8, 2013

I think it’s a sign.

It's a Sign

When you start storing your wine stash in a drawer, I think it’s a sign: you need a wine rack.  A grown-up wine rack.  Filled with $10 bottles of wine.

It’s good to be old!  (And, let’s face it, not very wealthy.)

Monday, February 4, 2013

To Celebrate Love

Pink Candle with Hearts

Ah, February, the Month of Love!  I’m not a hopeless romantic, but man, I love love.  For that reason, I am planning to celebrate love all month long here—after all, love is my blog’s middle name.

Years ago, I decided to reclaim Valentine’s Day as a celebration of all kinds of love.  I think that culturally, we are weirdly obsessed with romantic love, pair bonds, and the relationship escalator.  If you’ve never heard of the escalator before, it’s the process whereby two people progress from a starting point—friendship, dating, casual sex, whatever—into shared property, marriage, and children.  My feeling is that too many people spend their time obsessing about the relationship escalator and not enough time thinking about what will make them happy.  Feel free to disagree with me here if you want, but after spending many hours lending a sympathetic ear to friends who wanted their boyfriends to propose to them, I can say that the relationship escalator causes some serious, even if temporary, unhappiness.

I wanted to push back against the pedestal upon which we place romantic love.  I wanted to remember all the ways that love enriches my life, in the form of friendship, familial love, love of nature and everyday life, and self love.  In honor of love this month, I’ll be sprinkling bits of inspiration around this site for the next few weeks.  I’ll be sharing quotes I like, photographs, more thoughts on love—you know, the usual, but amped up a bit for the holiday.  Mostly I want to remind all of us to be grateful for the love we have in our lives now, right this moment.  Let’s take a break from longing for what we don’t have right now.

Speaking of longing, I wanted to say a few words about how I am feeling these days.  2012 was such a strange, hard year for me, and by far the most traumatic event was breaking up with Matt.  For the most part, I am feeling okay.  In many ways, our break-up was made easier by logistics: we have always lived in different cities, so I had my own apartment, habits, and social life without him.  We were wonderful companions, but there was virtually no co-dependence in our relationship.  I decided quickly after our break-up that I would try to be friends with him.  That decision goes against the conventional advice about break-ups.  Convention dictates that people need a cooling-off period, time away from each other, time to heal.  And I completely understand why: after a break-up, you need to feel the hell out of your feelings, and if you are angry, sad, bitter, depressed, or just generally NOT HAPPY with your ex, then it’s best not to be around that person.

I knew that I would not be around Matt in person and that I would have plenty of space to feel my feelings.  That relieved a lot of anxiety I might have felt otherwise.  Still, being friends has challenged me.  I had to stop exchanging e-mails with him because it tugged too hard at my heartstrings—we had e-mailed each other almost daily for five years.  After that, I found a great TED talk from Sherry Turkle called “Connected but Alone?”  And she said something that spoke to me so deeply that I tried to write it down for safekeeping:

"Human relationships are rich, and they're messy, and they're demanding.  And we clean them up with technology."

Rich, messy, and demanding. That pretty much describes my relationship with Matt, despite his attempts to shield me from the messy and demanding parts.  2012 was the year that Matt ran into the wall and everything fell apart.  The secret, though, is that the messy and demanding parts were always tangible to me.  It’s just that the tough parts of our relationship bore little resemblance to the problems that people on the relationship escalator face.

So we’ve shifted from daily e-mails to infrequent phone calls and a little texting.  It’s better for me that way.  But there’s something else that I had to confront: his happiness.  He said recently that he is happier these days, and I want to be happy for him.  But it’s hard, because his happiness has come at the expense of mine.  It’s hard because much of our relationship—the logistics, time spent together, frequency of communication—was based on what worked for him and what would make him happy.  I could go along with the plan because I loved him so much and wanted him to be happy.  It’s weird for me that our romantic relationship could stop working with no warning.  We literally went from a super-romantic vacation in San Antonio to no romance and a six-month-long breakup that would leave me wanting to claw my own heart out of my chest.  It was horrible.

But…he’s happier these days.  I’m okay these days.  And I am trying to embrace the idea that we both deserve to be happy.  Right now, that means being a true friend to him and being open to his happiness.  I fear that I’m making our friendship sound more difficult than it is.  The issue of his happiness pokes me in the heart, but our conversations are really nice.  He’s still Matt to me, and he still knows me better than anyone else.  We’re still kindred spirits.  I wish we were still together, and I still have all these feelings for him, but I can’t imagine that my life would be better if I excised him from it.

This month, as I celebrate love, I will also be celebrating love’s resilience.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

This One’s for Daine

Once upon a time, I was a devoted food blogger, cooking up recipes and stories for once-a-week posts to share on this site.  It was good times.  At the risk of sounding hopelessly narcissistic, I like reading my old posts and remembering what I was eating and how I was feeling.  Over time, however, writing about recipes started to grow stale for me.  I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why that is.  I still love to cook and eat.  I still like food; shopping for it and talking about it take up significant portions of my brain space.

I think the problem with recipe blogging was twofold.  One is that I wanted to explore other aspects of life with my writing.  I wanted to go beyond food to talk about goals, my career, spirituality, science, and freedom.  This blog is a labor of love for me; while I would love to post every day, I simply don’t have the time to do that.  Nor do I have the creative energy.  My job requires the lion’s share of everything—time, energy, planning, resilience.  To deny the reality of my day-to-day life would be silly, though I too have lamented the same thing that Chrissy did the other day—that in some very real ways, my life is kinda boring because my big adventure is my work, the work I get paid to do.

The second problem is that it’s become harder and harder to write recipe posts based on my cooking because my cooking these days looks a lot more like the cooking I have seen my friend Daine do: recipe-less and based more on an idea of a dish than precise instructions.  The irony, though, is that Daine tells me his misses my food posts!  Truthfully, I miss my food posts too, and I’ve been thinking that this year I will attempt to reintegrate them into my blogging rotation.  There’s already a backlog of recipes I want to share with you, and what do you know, they all involve chocolate!  That seems perfect for February.

Mixing Bowl Plus Puddings

Let’s start with a chocolate bomb of a recipe: Nigella Lawson’s hot gooey chocolate puddings.  These puddings are what to make when you need a serious hit of chocolate as fast as possible.

I was toodling around on Rachel’s site when I came across her post on these decadent chocolate explosions, and I knew I had to have my own batch of chocolate puddings.  Never mind that I’ve already shared a different chocolate pudding recipe from Nigella; I wanted that new recipe, baking in my oven, ASAP.  And now that I’ve tried both recipes, I can tell you that they are different enough from each other to have both in your repertoire.  Today’s recipe is a cross between a brownie and hot fudge sauce.  Once baked, the exterior of these puddings gets a little cakey and crinkled, while the interior is hot, rich, and saucy.  I’m not going to lie: these puddings are a bit addictive, so it’s probably a good idea to serve them to guests unless you want to be like me and eat them all yourself, then self-consciously pat your abdomen, looking for signs of the impending fattening that feels inevitable.

All of which is to say that these are pure indulgence and too good not to share with you.

Puddings, Pre-Oven

Hot Gooey Chocolate Puddings

Adapted slightly from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson

Serves 5

My very slight adaptations are the addition of a little salt and cinnamon.  I find that almost all of Nigella’s desserts need some salt, and these puddings are no exception.  I added the cinnamon because I just love cinnamon with chocolate.  Feel free to leave that out if you prefer.

2/3 cup + 2 tbsp. chocolate chips (I used semisweet)

1/2 cup (8 tbsp. or 1 stick) butter

3 eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

1)  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

2)  In a saucepan, melt the chocolate chips and butter together over low or medium heat.  Stir frequently.

3)  While the melting is going, grease and flour five ramekins.  I think my ramekins are of the 6-ounce size, just to give you an idea.  You can make larger or smaller portions if you like; Nigella actually calls for four 1-cup ramekins to make four servings.  But to paraphrase Jacqueline Carey, “Pud as thou wilt.”

4)  In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, flour, salt, and cinnamon.  When the chocolate and butter are melted together, whisk that mixture into the eggs, etc.  Divide the mixture among your ramekins, place them on a rimmed baking sheet, and pop them into the oven for 10-12 minutes.  Nigella says that the puddings are done when “the tops are firm and cracking slightly and the edges are set.”

5)  Serve immediately or whenever it pleases you.  As they cool, they start to lose some of that luscious saucy texture, but they are delicious even at room temperature.

PS  I apologize that I don’t have a picture of the puddings after baking.  But hey, someone else does!  Yay!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Five More Quirky Things

Cutting Board Collage_JPEG

Cutting board love!

* During my freezer clean-out, I threw away some old sandwich thins.  Those things suck.  From now on, real bread only.

* The carnal highlight of my week: Christopher Meloni as a vampire on True Blood.  Oh yes.  Scary has never been so sexy.

* I feel rather promiscuous when it comes to cutting boards.  I shouldn’t be, as I love my two guys, but you know, I can’t help but admire all the other options that are available.  How about this Ikea Laemplig cutting board, with its clever grooves for catching juices?  I don’t even really like Ikea in general (I’m more of a Pier One and Sur La Table girl myself), but still, it’s a nice board.  (Cutting board found while link-hopping at Yes and Yes.)

* I feel shallow that I read this article with great interest.

* And finally, another good song.  The lyrics make me laugh!  “When you’re young, you get sad…” 

* * *

So…how many of you now hate me for my comment about Ikea?  Truce?