Blogathon for SSA: Cardamom and Language

I was making cardamom simple syrup for a cocktail (recipe here), and having an imaginary conversation in my head where I tried to explain why I’m so obsessed with cardamom… and I was realizing that I don’t have good language for flavors. There are the obvious ones, obviously — sweet, sour, etc. But I was trying to describe in my head what cardamom tastes like, and realizing I had no idea how. It’s sort of sweet, but not quite; it’s sort of pungent, but not quite. It’s a Middle Eastern spice that goes equally well with sweet and savory dishes: it somehow makes sweet dishes more savory, and savory dishes subtly sweet. But that’s not very descriptive. Thoughts? And thoughts on how we use language for flavor? I can think of a zillion ways to describe what things look like, but very few (apart from the obvious ones) to describe how they taste.

BTW, it turns out you don’t have to shell a zillion cardamom pods by hand to make cardamom simple syrup. They do sell pre-shelled cardamom pods. Wish I’d known that for my 50th birthday.

This post is part of my blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance. Donate today!

I’ve posted some quotes talking about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome, and why they deserve your support. If you have a story or a comment about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome — post it in the comments, and I’ll post it in the blog! Along with kitten photos, of course. Support the SSA!

In Defense of Pretentious Hipster Douchebaggery, Culinary Edition

“No, I do not want a beer. I just got back home to San Francisco after a week in the South and the Midwest. I want a ridiculous, pretentious, overpriced cocktail with a lot of stupid crap in it.”
-Greta Christina

Yes. When it comes to food and booze, I am one of those pretentious hipster douchebags. I’m one of those people who creams in her jeans when she sees the word “local” on a menu. I’m one of those people who pisses themselves over artisanal everything: artisanal bread, artisanal donuts, artisanal ice cream, artisanal coffee, artisanal chopped liver. I’m one of those people who gets all excited about weird flavor combinations that seem like they were randomly grabbed out of a hat: donuts with chocolate and rosemary, ice cream with bourbon and corn flakes, salted lavender shortbread, gazpacho with strawberries, raspberry and red pepper sorbet. I’m one of those people who will happily pay twelve bucks for a cocktail if it’s made with basil and cardamom bitters and a single-barrel whiskey I’ve never heard of. I’m one of those people who will happily pay eight bucks for a chocolate bar if it has smoked salt and was produced by a worker-owned collective. I’m one of those people who will walk an extra ten blocks to Rainbow Grocery for coffee, because they have decaf French roast that’s fair trade. I’m one of those people who wants the bartender — excuse me, the mixologist — to invent a cocktail for me on the spot, based on my suggestions of base liquor and flavor profile. (Typically “bourbon” and “spicy.”) I’m one of those people who grills the waitstaff (politely, of course) on the exact provenance of the meat, and whether it was raised and killed in a manner that befits my ethical standards. I’m one of those people for whom “Portlandia” is a documentary.

And yes, I will grant you just about every criticism you care to make, trivial or serious, about this pretentious hipster douchebag culinary culture. Yes, it’s pretentious (obviously). Yes, it’s smug and full of itself. Yes, it’s relentlessly trend-hopping. Yes, it often takes itself way too seriously (although to be fair, most of the pretentious culinary hipsters I know have a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing). Yes, it has more than a whiff of classism and snobbery about it. Yes, the hipsterization of food contributes to gentrification, and thus to pricing poor and working-class people out of neighborhoods they’ve lived in for years. (I once read a definition of a hipster that was so scarily accurate it made me cringe: “You complain about gentrification even though you’re one of the people responsible for it.”) Yes, in a blind taste-test, I probably couldn’t tell the difference.

I will grant you all of that, and more, with no argument. I will simply ask you to grant me this, or at least to consider it:

Pretentious culinary hipsterism is one of the few forces pushing back against the relentless corporate monoculture that’s demolishing local food.

I spend a lot of time traveling around the country doing public speaking. When my hosts ask, “What kind of food do you like?”, I typically answer, “If there’s a local specialty, I’d like to try it. If there’s a great local barbecue joint, a local diner that’s been here for decades, something along those lines… I’d love to go there.”

And all too often, they look at me blankly, and take me to a chain restaurant.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for their hospitality, and the company is the main point anyway. And I don’t blame them for taking me to a chain. Because in much of the country, that’s all there is. In much of the country, there is no local diner anymore. In much of the country, when you go out to eat, your options are Chain Restaurant A, Chain Restaurant B, Chain Restaurant C, or Chain Restaurant D. In much of the country — especially (and tragically) in the South and the Midwest — local food culture is being crushed into the ground by the gargantuan Godzilla foot of corporate monoculture.

And in much of the country, when there is an alternative to corporate monoculture restaurants, it’s the pretentious hipster place.

These are the places that are supporting small local farmers. These are the places that are networking with other small businesses. These are the places that are reviving and perpetuating local specialties. These are the places that care about tradition, and ritual, and the ways that food connects us to our homes and our ancestors. These are the places where the waitstaff doesn’t turn over every three months; where the waitstaff sticks around long enough to get to know your name, and for you to get to know theirs. These are the places where the waitstaff are often the owners. These are the places that are building neighborhoods. These are the places run by people who give a damn about serving their customers a fresh, delicious, nutritious, high-quality product. These are the places run by people who think food should be prepared, and eaten, with love.

It’s funny. These used to be classic American values. Old-fashioned, conservative, Norman Rockwell values, even. I’m not sure when they turned into the hallmarks of pretentious urban hipster douchebaggery. Probably around the time that sucking the dick of multinational corporations became the hallmark of American patriotism.

And that’s exactly my point. Somewhere along the way, “American patriotism” mutated into “abandoning everything that actually makes America special and kind of cool.” Somewhere along the way, “American patriotism” started to mean “handing everything over to our corporate overlords, so they can grind it into a mass of indistinguishable mincemeat and sell it back to us at three times the price.” And pretentious as it is, smug as it is, self-conscious as it is, artisanal locavore hipster food culture is pushing back against all that.

If the choice were between the artisanal hipster place serving locally sourced cheese plates with spelt bread and pepper jam, or the unpretentious family-owned diner that’s been serving the same pancakes and fried chicken for three generations… this would be a different conversation. But increasingly, that’s not the choice. Increasingly, the choice is between the artisanal hipster place, and Applebee’s. Bennigan’s. Boston Market. T.G.I. Friday’s. Increasingly, the choice is between homogenized, manufactured hominess… and the unique flavor of a place, self-conscious though it may be, that actually turns a location into a home.

I’m not going to pretend that eating lavender shortbread is a revolutionary act. I’m just saying: I’m happy that this choice exists. I’m happy there are people making this choice available. And I want to give them their props.

Preferably with a rosemary garnish.

Happy 50th Birthday To Me… and My Half-Century Cocktail Recipe

Happy birthday to me
I don’t live in a tree
But I look like a primate
Because I am one!

Happy birthday to me! I’m 50 years old today, a fact that I’m mildly weirded out about. On the other hand, as they say, it beats the alternative. And I plan to spend my fifties exploding stereotypes about people in their fifties… so that should be fun. I think the next fifty years are going to RAWK! (Insert embarrassing mental image of middle-aged person making the devil-horns rock-and-roll gesture.)

And we invented a cocktail tonight in honor of the occasion! I’m calling it a Half Century. It’s not wildly freaky or anything — it’s roughly a whiskey sour made with lime juice and cardamom simple syrup — but it’s awfully damn delicious. And it has qualities both of a classic cocktail and a weird modern spicy cocktail, which seems appropriate for the occasion. Plus it has cardamom! Nature’s perfect food. [Read more…]

Greta’s Amazing Chocolate Pie

This is an old post from my archives, which I’m reprinting today for obvious reasons. Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s been a while since I’ve done a food post here that wasn’t about weight management, and I just made this pie for my birthday, so I thought I’d share the recipe.

This is a ridiculously easy, unbelievably delicious recipe for chocolate pie. And it’s not just me saying so: friends have been known to demand it for celebratory events, and will shed hot tears of bitter disappointment if it doesn’t appear at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It’s very distinctive — most people who try it say they haven’t had anything else quite like it — and it’s one of those rare recipes that seems really elegant and like it would be really complicated, but in fact is insanely simple. The pie crust is 9/10th of the work.

The recipe came from my mother, but I don’t know where she got it from. I’ve been making it for many years now, and have refined the recipe a bit over the years, mostly in the direction of using better ingredients. I did an experimental version for my birthday this year (in addition to a classic version), which was a big hit, so I’m including that variation here as well.

CLASSIC CHOCOLATE PIE

INGREDIENTS

1 single pie crust (this is an open-faced pie). More on pie crust in a tic.
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 Tbsp. evaporated milk
2 squares/ ounces baking chocolate (unsweetened)
Whipped cream (optional in theory, mandatory in my opinion)

A quick note on the baking chocolate: For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, use Scharffen Berger’s if you possibly can, or some other seriously good baking chocolate. I made this pie for years using just regular baking chocolate from the supermarket, and it was perfectly yummy… but once I started using Scharffen Berger’s, it amped up from delicious to transcendent. I frankly don’t much care for Scharffen Berger’s eating chocolate, I think the mouth- feel is insufficiently creamy… but for cooking, their baking chocolate is beyond compare.

Bake the unfilled pie shell for 5-10 minutes at 450 degrees, until it’s starting to firm up a little but isn’t cooked through. Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan. Add the other ingredients (minus the whipped cream) and mix; you can do this in the saucepan. (I add the eggs last, so the melted butter and chocolate have a chance to cool and the eggs don’t scramble.) Pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake for 30-40 minutes at 325 degrees, until the filling is set. (I usually test it at 30 minutes, but it usually still needs another 5-10 minutes. When it’s no longer jiggling in the middle, it’s done.)

That’s it.

No, really.

I told you. Ridiculously easy. Not counting the pie crust, the actual work you put into this pie takes about five minutes.

I always serve this with whipped cream, as the pie is intensely rich and dense, and I think the whipped cream gives it balance. But many people prefer it with the richness and denseness unadulterated, and scoff at the whipped cream as an unnecessary frill for lightweights. My advice: Make whipped cream available, and let your guests decide. (Don’t add too much sugar to the whipped cream; this pie is plenty sweet.)

EXPERIMENTAL CHOCOLATE PIE

Make the exact same recipe above, but when mixing the filling, add:

1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

This year was the first time I tried this experiment, and I think it was a big success. It gives the pie a nice, exotic, spicy bite that I think enhances the chocolate and gives it complexity and depth. But it also makes it less purely chocolatey. A lot of what makes this pie so yummy is its “pure essence of chocolate straight to the hindbrain” quality, and you do lose that with the spices. You be the judge. You can always make two — one classic, one experimental — and switch back and forth between the two until you explode.

BTW, if you wind up making this pie and come up with your own experimental variations — let me know! I’m toying with the idea of adding liquor, like rum or Kahlua or madeira. Cayenne might also be good — I love me some chocolate with cayenne — or maybe rosemary and almond. And I’m considering using vanilla vodka for the crust instead of regular vodka.

Speaking of which:

NOTES ON PIE CRUST

For years, I made this pie with store-bought pie crusts, mostly because one of the things I liked best about it was how easy and fast it was, and making my own pie crust would defeat that purpose. Also, pie crust was one of those cooking tasks that for some reason I found scary and daunting. And it’s true that if you get a decent quality store-bought pie crust made with butter, it will make a perfectly fine pie.

But I was recently taught how to make pie crust by my upstairs neighbor, Laura the Pie Queen… and it is one of the refinements that has elevated this pie from Perfectly Good to Ambrosially Exquisite. I have now become a complete convert — a snob, one might even say — and will have no further truck with store- bought pie crust. And while homemade pie crust is definitely both more time- consuming and more difficult (it reduced me to near- hysterics the first couple of times), like most things it gets easier and faster with practice.

Here’s the recipe Laura gave me. Some of the reasoning behind it: Crisco makes pie crust flakier, butter makes it more flavorful… which is why I like this recipe, which uses both. And using vodka to moisten the dough makes for a flakier crust, as it evaporates during baking. (You want to use as little liquid as you can to make the dough hold together, since more liquid makes the crust tougher: the vodka facilitates this.) This is a recipe for an entire two-crusted pie; since the chocolate pie is open-faced, halve this recipe if you’re making just one pie, or make it all if you’re making two pies. Which I usually do. We will never get leftovers if I don’t make two pies.

2 – 1/2 cups (12 – 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1 tsp. table salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
12 Tbsp. (1 – 1/2 sticks) cold butter (frozen is good)
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening (Crisco or equivalent)
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup cold vodka

Sift dry ingredients together. Cut butter and shortening into smallish pieces, add to flour. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, break butter and shortening into smaller and smaller pieces covered with flour, until the little floury fat-balls are roughly pea-sized. Sprinkle in the water and vodka, enough to make the dough hold together and roll out, without making it too sticky. (You may wind up using slightly more or less liquid than the recipe calls for, depending. Don’t ask me “depending on what.” Just depending.) Sprinkle more flour on your rolling surface and your rolling pin, and roll the dough out. Place it gently in the pie plate, flatten the edges over the lip of the pie plate, and prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Proceed.

In general, you want to work the pie dough as little as humanly possible while still making it a coherent whole. Don’t overwork the dough while breaking up the butter and shortening; use as few strokes as possible to roll it out. And everything that can be cold, should be cold.

Like I said: The pie crust is 9/10th of the work. It’s totally worth it, though. If you can’t bear it, go ahead and buy a crust from the store. Better yet, get your upstairs neighbor to make it for you. (Thanks again, Laura!)

If you make this pie, let me know how it turns out. If you make an experimental variation that you like, let me know what it is. And yes, I realize I am a bad, bad person for running this recipe in January, right when lots of people are making New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier or lose weight. What can I say. I’m an atheist, and therefore have no moral foundation and no reason to have compassion for others. Happy eating, and happy New Year!

Chocolate Chip Cookies and Cute Kittens: Compare and Contrast

I’m currently working on a piece comparing the child rape scandal at Penn State with the child rape scandal in the Catholic Church. It’s making me sick and sad. Over on Facebook, I pleaded, “Can’t I write a piece comparing chocolate chip cookies with cute kittens?”

And it was pointed out, by more than one person, that there’s no reason I can’t do both.

So. Chocolate chip cookies and cute kittens. How are they similar? How are they different? Is one superior to the other; are they equal/ are they simply not comparable with one another? Let’s discuss!

Similarities: Chocolate chip cookies and cute kittens are both wonderful. They make you smile. You can curl up with both of them on a rainy day, and it’s comforting and homey. They both have a tendency to leave detritus on the sofa — either in the form of cat hair or crumbs. They’re both soft and warm (not always the case with chocolate chip cookies, but often).

Differences: Chocolate chip cookies are delicious. They’re extra-delicious with coffee. They smell good. They have chocolate in them. You can bring them to work and leave them in your kitchen for your co-workers to enjoy. (I suppose you could do that with cute kittens, but it’s probably inadvisable.) You can make them yourself at home, which makes your house smell wonderful, or you can buy them at your favorite cafe or bakery.

Cute kittens, on the other hand, are fluffy. They’re alive and conscious, and you can interact with them and have a relationship with them. They love you (sort of, in their self-absorbed cat way). They scamper. You can dangle toys in front of them, and they’ll bat them around in an entertaining way. The bounce around the house going “boing, boing, boing,” and then suddenly fall asleep. They have big adorable eyes.

Conclusion: I am in favor of both chocolate chip cookies and cute kittens. They have some important similarities — mostly in the area of wonderfulness. They do, however, have some important differences, and are difficult to compare, since they serve such different functions in our lives.

Thoughts? How have these important issues played out in your own life?

I have my archives!

I have my archives from my old blog! They’re here! With comments and everything! They’re even in the right categories!

Images and videos didn’t make it over, and there are a handful of posts that didn’t make it and that I’ll have to put in by hand. (For some reason, it didn’t like my posts about alternative medicine, speaking at Stanford, making atheism a safe place to land, atheists having morality, and my recipe for chocolate pie. Make of that what you will.) But I can live with that. The archives are here. Years of my old work — all finally in one place. This has been driving me up a tree, and I can now finally relax about it. (A little.)

If you want to see them, scroll down in the sidebar to where it says “Recent Posts/ Comments/ Archives.” Click Archives. There they are! You can also search for posts in the archives with the handy Search box at the top right of the blog. Which works waaaay better than the search box at my old blog.

When I’m back from my Minnesota trip, I’m going to start working on (a) getting the old blog to redirect to the new one, and (b) getting the best and hottest posts listed in my sidebar, so newcomers to the blog can browse them more easily. And I’ll probably start linking to the cool stuff from the archives, so newcomers to this blog can become familiar with it. For now, I’m just going to sit back and cry tears of happiness and relief. I can haz archives! Yay!

I have to express my intense gratitude to fellow Freethought Blogger Jason Thibeault, at Lousy Canuck, for making this happen. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that atheists have no sense of community or compassion. I owe him big time. Go visit his blog, and tell him Thank You.

Ad Hoc Soup

Soup So since I was a jerk last week and posted a recipe for insanely easy, insanely delicious chocolate pie, right at the beginning of January when everyone’s resolving to eat healthier and lose weight, I thought I’d make up for it, and post this recipe for insanely easy, insanely delicious, insanely healthy soup.

Although it’s not a recipe, exactly. It’s more of a concept. A philosophy even, one might say.

Eat me kenny shopsin We got this idea from Kenny Shopsin, of the famed Shopsin’s in New York, out of his wonderful and entertaining cookbook, Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin. The philosophy is this: With traditional soup, you make a big pot of it, and cook everything together, so the flavors of the vegetables/ beans/ meat/ whatnot all get blended into the broth. But with this soup, it’s exactly the opposite. You don’t make a big pot of it at once; instead, you make just a bowl or two of it at a time, ad hoc. You cook your protein, you sautee your veggies… and then, at the very last minute right before you’re ready to eat, you put all the stuff in a bowl, and pour the hot broth/ stock over it. (Or you can set some of the stuff on top, if you feel like making your soup all Japanese and pretty.)

It’s a very different philosophy of soup, and it’s one that I had to be persuaded about. With this method, the vegetables/ beans/ meat/ whatnot all keep their own flavors instead of blending together. But once I tried it, I was completely sold. The biggest upside is that the veggies don’t get mushy: they stay nicely crisp, and their flavors stay vivid and distinct. It’s also very fast: a quick sauteeing of veggies and/or meat, a quick nuking of some stock or broth, and you’re done. Plus you can use whatever veggies are in season, and whatever you happen to have on hand on your fridge. And you make exactly as much soup as you want: no more, no less.

The downside is that the flavors don’t have time to blend into the broth. But if you use a flavorful broth or stock to start with, that’s not a problem.

Here’s how it goes.

INGREDIENTS:

Vegetables Vegetables that are in season and that you like in soup. Carrots, celery, peppers, green beans, spinach, peas… whatever. You can also use frozen veggies if you like; frozen corn is especially good. For the most part, though, I like to stick with fresh.

A good stock or broth: chicken, vegetable, beef, whatever you like. I make my own stock and freeze it in little Tupperwares, it’s easy and yummy. But you can also use store-bought broth, if you have one you like. I use about two cups per serving if I’m eating the soup as a main course.

A little olive oil, enough for sauteeing veggies.

Some sort of protein that you like in soup. (You can skip the protein if you’re serving this soup as a side dish — I had the soup last week with bread and cheese, which was plenty protein-y. But if it’s your main course, you’ll want a protein.)

Salt and pepper.

PREPARATION:

Cook your protein however you like it cooked. Broil a chicken breast, poach an egg, cut up and sautee a sausage, nuke a can of beans.

Heat up your stock/ broth to just boiling.

Sautee pan Slice your veggies thin and sautee them lightly, in a little bit of olive oil. Start with veggies that take longer to cook, like carrots; finish with ones that take less time, like peppers. Or don’t sautee them at all, depending. Spinach, for instance, I just put in the soup bowl, since being in the hot stock for a couple/ few minutes will cook it plenty. Green onions I sprinkle on top.

Put your veggies and protein in a soup bowl, and pour the hot broth/ stock over it. If you like, you can reserve some of the veggies or protein, and arrange them prettily on top. I do this with green onions and slices of broiled chicken.

Salt and pepper to taste. Fresh herbs wouldn’t suck, either; but if you have a really flavorful stock with a lot of herbs in it, they’re not necessary.

Empty soup bowl And that’s it. Eat it up. Serve it with rice if you have some leftover, or some good bread, or some artisanal saltines (seriously, I am not kidding, I saw these at Rainbow Grocery). Or whatever. It can be a side dish or the main course. Eat huddled in front of your heater, or cuddled together under the blanket with a heat-seeking cat trying to wedge in between you. Serves however many you made enough for.

Greta’s Amazing Chocolate Pie

Pi_plate It’s been a while since I’ve done a food post here that wasn’t about weight management, and I just made this pie for my birthday, so I thought I’d share the recipe.

This is a ridiculously easy, unbelievably delicious recipe for chocolate pie. And it’s not just me saying so: friends have been known to demand it for celebratory events, and will shed hot tears of bitter disappointment if it doesn’t appear at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It’s very distinctive — most people who try it say they haven’t had anything else quite like it — and it’s one of those rare recipes that seems really elegant and like it would be really complicated, but in fact is insanely simple. The pie crust is 9/10th of the work.

The recipe came from my mother, but I don’t know where she got it from. I’ve been making it for many years now, and have refined the recipe a bit over the years, mostly in the direction of using better ingredients. I did an experimental version for my birthday this year (in addition to a classic version), which was a big hit, so I’m including that variation here as well.

CLASSIC CHOCOLATE PIE

INGREDIENTS

1 single pie crust (this is an open-faced pie). More on pie crust in a tic.
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 Tbsp. evaporated milk
2 squares/ ounces baking chocolate (unsweetened)
Whipped cream (optional in theory, mandatory in my opinion)

ScharffenBerger A quick note on the baking chocolate: For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, use Scharffen Berger’s if you possibly can, or some other seriously good baking chocolate. I made this pie for years using just regular baking chocolate from the supermarket, and it was perfectly yummy… but once I started using Scharffen Berger’s, it amped up from delicious to transcendent. I frankly don’t much care for Scharffen Berger’s eating chocolate, I think the mouth- feel is insufficiently creamy… but for cooking, their baking chocolate is beyond compare.

Bake the unfilled pie shell for 5-10 minutes, until it’s starting to firm up a little but isn’t cooked through. Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan. Add the other ingredients (minus the whipped cream) and mix; you can do this in the saucepan. (I add the eggs last, so the melted butter and chocolate have a chance to cool and the eggs don’t scramble.) Pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the filling is set. (I usually test it at 30 minutes, but it usually still needs another 5-10 minutes. When it’s no longer jiggling in the middle, it’s done.)

That’s it.

No, really.

I told you. Ridiculously easy. Not counting the pie crust, the actual work you put into this pie takes about five minutes.

I always serve this with whipped cream, as the pie is intensely rich and dense, and I think the whipped cream gives it balance. But many people prefer it with the richness and denseness unadulterated, and scoff at the whipped cream as an unnecessary frill for lightweights. My advice: Make whipped cream available, and let your guests decide. (Don’t add too much sugar to the whipped cream; this pie is plenty sweet.)

EXPERIMENTAL CHOCOLATE PIE

Make the exact same recipe above, but when mixing the filling, add:

White pepper1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

This year was the first time I tried this experiment, and I think it was a big success. It gives the pie a nice, exotic, spicy bite that I think enhances the chocolate and gives it complexity and depth. But it also makes it less purely chocolatey. A lot of what makes this pie so yummy is its “pure essence of chocolate straight to the hindbrain” quality, and you do lose that with the spices. You be the judge. You can always make two — one classic, one experimental — and switch back and forth between the two until you explode.

BTW, if you wind up making this pie and come up with your own experimental variations — let me know! I’m toying with the idea of adding liquor, like rum or Kahlua or madeira. Cayenne might also be good — I love me some chocolate with cayenne — or maybe rosemary and almond. And I’m considering using vanilla vodka for the crust instead of regular vodka.

Speaking of which:

NOTES ON PIE CRUST

For years, I made this pie with store-bought pie crusts, mostly because one of the things I liked best about it was how easy and fast it was, and making my own pie crust would defeat that purpose. Also, pie crust was one of those cooking tasks that for some reason I found scary and daunting. And it’s true that if you get a decent quality store-bought pie crust made with butter, it will make a perfectly fine pie.

Rolling_pin_and_dough But I was recently taught how to make pie crust by my upstairs neighbor, Laura the Pie Queen… and it is one of the refinements that has elevated this pie from Perfectly Good to Ambrosially Exquisite. I have now become a complete convert — a snob, one might even say — and will have no further truck with store- bought pie crust. And while homemade pie crust is definitely both more time- consuming and more difficult (it reduced me to near- hysterics the first couple of times), like most things it gets easier and faster with practice.

Here’s the recipe Laura gave me. Some of the reasoning behind it: Crisco makes pie crust flakier, butter makes it more flavorful… which is why I like this recipe, which uses both. And using vodka to moisten the dough makes for a flakier crust, as it evaporates during baking. (You want to use as little liquid as you can to make the dough hold together, since more liquid makes the crust tougher: the vodka facilitates this.) This is a recipe for an entire two-crusted pie; since the chocolate pie is open-faced, halve this recipe if you’re making just one pie, or make it all if you’re making two pies. Which I usually do. We will never get leftovers if I don’t make two pies.

2 – 1/2 cups (12 – 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1 tsp. table salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
12 Tbsp. (1 – 1/2 sticks) cold butter (frozen is good)
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening (Crisco or equivalent)
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup cold vodka

Pie-crust_in_dish Sift dry ingredients together. Cut butter and shortening into smallish pieces, add to flour. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, break butter and shortening into smaller and smaller pieces covered with flour, until the little floury fat-balls are roughly pea-sized. Sprinkle in the water and vodka, enough to make the dough hold together and roll out, without making it too sticky. (You may wind up using slightly more or less liquid than the recipe calls for, depending. Don’t ask me “depending on what.” Just depending.) Sprinkle more flour on your rolling surface and your rolling pin, and roll the dough out. Place it gently in the pie plate, flatten the edges over the lip of the pie plate, and prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Proceed.

In general, you want to work the pie dough as little as humanly possible while still making it a coherent whole. Don’t overwork the dough while breaking up the butter and shortening; use as few strokes as possible to roll it out. And everything that can be cold, should be cold.

Like I said: The pie crust is 9/10th of the work. It’s totally worth it, though. If you can’t bear it, go ahead and buy a crust from the store. Better yet, get your upstairs neighbor to make it for you. (Thanks again, Laura!)

If you make this pie, let me know how it turns out. If you make an experimental variation that you like, let me know what it is. And yes, I realize I am a bad, bad person for running this recipe in January, right when lots of people are making New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier or lose weight. What can I say. I’m an atheist, and therefore have no moral foundation and no reason to have compassion for others. Happy eating, and happy New Year!

Caught Between Fat and Thin: When a Fat Acceptance Advocate Takes Off the Pounds

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Doll tape measure I’m always going to be a fat woman.

Don’t get me wrong. At five foot three and 135 pounds, I am not, by any useful definition of the word, fat.

But I have been fat. I was fat for many, many years. And for years, I was an ardent advocate of the fat acceptance movement. I actively resisted the idea that there was any point whatsoever to losing weight. I believed that medical statistics on the health effects of fatness were exaggerated at best, part of the cultural conspiracy to make women hate their bodies at worst. I was convinced that I could be just as healthy at 200 pounds (and with the eating and exercise habits that kept me at 200 pounds) as I would be with less weight. And I was convinced that losing weight never, ever worked… or at least, that it worked so rarely it wasn’t worth trying. If there was even any reason for trying. Which I was convinced there wasn’t. (It wasn’t until my bad knee started getting worse that I saw the writing on the wall, and decided that, given a choice between losing mobility and losing weight, the weight would have to go. Here’s how I did it, if you’re interested.)

You’d probably think that losing weight would make a person stop thinking of themselves as fat. And you’d almost certainly think that making a concerted effort to not be fat would make someone abandon the whole idea of fat acceptance.

If so, you’d be wrong. I thought all that myself once… and I was wrong.

Greta fat avatar I still see the world as a fat person. My perceptions of myself, and of society, and of how society views fatness and bodies and health, have been profoundly shaped by my years of being fat… in ways that are never going to change. And while I have huge disagreements with the fat acceptance movement — especially with its more extreme denialist edges — I still think many of its ideas are important, and perceptive, and entirely fair. I have serious disagreements with FA, but I am still very much shaped by it, and I would like to think of myself as an ally of the movement, and even as a member of it.

It’s just that they don’t feel the same way about me.

Or about other fat people who choose to lose weight.

The Thinnest Fat Woman in the World

Shallow Hal My years as a fat woman — and as a fat acceptance advocate — have made me hyper-conscious of anti-fat hostility, contempt, and discrimination. When I hear mocking or insulting comments about fat people, I stand up for them. When I see rigid, internally contradictory, impossible- to- attain standards of physical beauty promoted in pop culture, I rant about it ad nauseum. When I hear about fat people being discriminated against in employment and medicine and so on, I get seriously ticked off. When folks call fat people “lazy slobs” and say that “as a society we should not look up to successful people who are fat. We should tell them we admire their acting or philanthropy, but look down on them for being lazy” (direct quotes from comments on my Facebook page, btw), I smack them down with every weapon in my rhetorical arsenal.

And I still take it really, really personally. I don’t hear anti-fat bigotry the way I hear, say, racial bigotry, as something to be passionately opposed but that isn’t aimed at me personally. I hear it as being about me. When someone in a comment thread on AlterNet linked to an older photo of me and mocked me for being fat, I felt the shame and the sting and the anger… before I remembered, “Wait a minute. I’m not fat.” And was left with only the anger. On behalf of myself… and every other woman who’s ever had her ideas irrelevantly dismissed because of her personal appearance.

I sometimes feel like the thinnest fat woman in the world. (Well, probably not the thinnest… but you know what I mean.) Some people say that, inside every fat person, there’s a thin person trying to get out. I feel the exact opposite. Inside this relatively lean body, there’s a fat person nobody can see. People think they can say stupid, bigoted, hurtful things about fat people to me, because they don’t see me as one of them. They couldn’t be more wrong. I am fat. Not in a body-dysmorphic way — I don’t look in the mirror and think I’m still fat — but because this fat identity shaped me for years, and it will always be with me.

Medical journals It’s true that my feelings about fatness — my own, and other people’s — have been changing since I’ve lost weight. The biggest change is that I now acknowledge the health problems associated with fatness: problems I was in deep denial about during my fat years. So I have some concerns about the health and well-being of the fat people in my life, in a way that I didn’t before.

But I also see it as none of my freaking business.

I do think weight loss is both possible and worthwhile. But I also think that the cost-benefit analysis isn’t the same for everyone. Weight loss was really freaking hard: it wasn’t as hard as I’d initially thought it would be, and it got easier with time, but it still took some extremely hard work. And I had everything going for me: easy access to healthy food, money for things like healthy food and a gym membership, a health-conscious city to live in, a supportive partner who was going through the process with me. Not everyone has all that. And even people who do have all that still may not make the same cost-benefit analysis that I did.

So if some other fat person looks at the time and work and emotional effort that weight loss takes, and decides, “Nah, that isn’t where I want to put my energy”… I think that’s a reasonable decision. As long as they’re making it with their eyes open — as long as they understand the costs and risks of fatness, and decide that they’re willing to accept them — then I support them. To me, that’s the essence of fat acceptance. Their body, their right to decide.

And in a totally freaky paradox, fat acceptance has helped me lose weight and keep it off. My years as an FA advocate have actually given me essential tools for weight management.

Perfect Here’s what I mean. One of the hardest things about maintaining weight loss has been accepting the fact that my body is never, ever going to be perfect. It’s never going to be the culture’s ideal; it’s not even going to be my own. Even though my weight and body fat percentage and so on are now well within a healthy medical range, there are still plenty of things I’d change about my body if I could wave a magic wand and make it happen.

That’s been hard to accept. For years, I projected all my body anxiety onto my weight. If I was unhappy with how I looked or felt, I assumed it was because I was fat. Period. And when I was in process of losing weight, even though I was healthier and happier with my body than I’d been in years, I was still very focused on trying to change, to reach my goal weight, to make my body different. Now that my weight is where I want it… I have to accept this body. With my thin hair, my veiny hands, my droopy breasts, my funky loose skin from the weight loss, my chronic middle- aged- lady health problems. I have to accept this body, and live with it, and love it.

And my years in the fat acceptance movement have been helping me do that.

Greta on porch The idea that I can love my body the way it is? The idea that I can focus more on how my body feels and functions than how it looks? The understanding that the cultural ideal of physical beauty is not just insanely rigid and narrow, but internally contradictory and literally unattainable? The understanding that everybody, even fashion models and movie stars, is insecure about their bodies and their attractiveness… and that becoming more secure happens, not by hating our bodies and trying to change them, but by loving our bodies and learning to accept them? The idea that there are lots of different ways to be beautiful and desirable? The idea that confidence and joy make people way more attractive than any physical traits? The idea that I can make the body I have be as healthy and happy as possible, instead of trying to cram it into someone else’s ideal? The idea that I should eat well and exercise, even if it doesn’t make my body look exactly the way I want it to, because it will help my body feel the way I want it to? The wacky notion that a “good body” is one that gives me pleasure and does most of what I want it to do?

All of this comes from my years as a fat acceptance advocate. And I can apply it to how I feel about my body now, in ways that have nothing to do with my weight: my age, my skin, my hands, my short square frame. Heck, I can even apply it to my weight… which is totally healthy by medical standards, but is still seen as grossly fat by the standards of, say, TV actresses. Even though my weight is well within a healthy medical range, it’s still not always easy being okay with it. And the ideas I learned from FA have been of invaluable help.

And I’m tremendously grateful for that. I am still very much shaped by the ideas of fat acceptance, and even though I’m not fat anymore, I would like to think of myself as an ally of the movement, and even as a member of it.

I just wish the movement felt the same way about me.

And about other fat people who choose to lose weight.

My Body, My Right To Decide

AtherosclerosisI am grateful for the FA movement. But I also have serious differences with it, and some serious anger. Among other things, I spent years buying into the hardcore FA line denying any connection between fatness and health problems. And this denialism gave me a years-long excuse to not try weight loss. I spent years ignoring the serious health problems my weight was creating for me… because I’d been persuaded by the FA movement that weight loss wouldn’t make any difference to my health, and that I’d never succeed at it even if I tried. I wasted a lot of years being a lot less healthy than I could have been. I’m pretty ticked off about that.

But that’s nothing compared to the anger I’m experiencing now that I’ve lost weight.

When I first started blogging about my weight loss, I was met with a faceful of extremist denialism, concern trolling, and outright hostility from many FA advocates, in both blog comments and private emails. The health benefits of successful weight loss were denied. The extremist attitudes of many FA activists were denied. Connections between weight and health were denied, and medical researchers publicizing these connections were called “crusaders.” I was told that all diets fail everyone. I was told that there was no way my weight loss would work in the long run; that I might succeed in losing the weight initially, but would almost certainly fail to keep it off over time. I was told that weight loss is never the right decision for anyone, and that there is no health problem that could appropriately be dealt with by weight loss. I was told that there are no serious health risks caused or exacerbated by being fat, and that health problems that appear to be caused by fatness are always really caused by something else. I was told that weight is entirely controlled by genetics, that eating/ exercise habits have absolutely nothing to do with it, and that weight management is therefore a complete waste of time. I was told that it was okay to incidentally lose weight as part of a “healthy at every size” eating and exercise plan, but that deliberate weight loss was horribly unhealthy… even if the “conscious weight loss” plan was identical to the “healthy at every size” plan in every way. I was told that even when weight loss is successful, the harm done by it — physical, psychological, or both — is terrible: so terrible that, in all cases, it completely outweighs the benefits.

Knee And the specific health concern that inspired me to lose weight — namely, a bad knee that was getting much worse, to the point where my mobility was becoming seriously impaired — was met with a callous, trivializing dismissal that I still find shocking. Many FA advocates were passionately concerned about the quality of life I might lose if I counted calories or stopped eating chocolate bars every day. But when it came to the quality of life I might lose if I could no longer dance, climb hills, climb stairs, take long walks, walk at all? Eh. Whatever. I should try exercise or physical therapy or something. Oh, I’d tried those things already? Well, whatever. As long as I didn’t try to lose weight. That was the important thing. For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, whatever else I did, I should not try to lose weight.

Essentially, when I started writing about weight loss, I was treated like a traitor. I was treated like a threat. Even though I made it clear that I wasn’t advocating weight loss for everybody, the mere fact that I was choosing to lose weight myself was seen as undermining the principles of the movement. And I was told, in no uncertain terms, to knock it off.

Our bodies out right to decide This didn’t just piss me off. It baffled me. I’d always thought of the fat acceptance movement as essentially about empowerment and self-ownership. Our bodies, our right to decide. Apparently, not so much. Apparently, the decision to manage my health by losing weight was not really mine. Apparently, my body didn’t belong to me. It belonged to the fat acceptance movement. Many of whom felt entirely comfortable telling me what I should and should not do with it.

And I’m not the only one. When I started blogging about my weight loss, I wasn’t just met with toxic denialism from FA advocates. I was also met with a hugely positive response from readers who were dealing with the same stuff. Like me, a lot of my readers identified as fat-positive, but because of serious health concerns, they were now working on losing weight… and were trying to reconcile their fat-positivity with their weight loss. And a number of these readers had dealt with the same hostile, concern-trolling, denialist reaction from the FA movement. They felt the movement had made an important and valuable difference in their lives, they felt a connection with it that they wanted to maintain… and yet they felt like they’d been abandoned by it, even pushed out of it. Margo put it best in her email to me: “The body / fat positive communities don’t seem to have any place for me, even though these are communities I’ve sought out, identified with and gained a lot from over the years. Firstly, I’ve done the unthinkable and dropped my body fat percentage intentionally, and secondly, the scientist in me just can’t deal with the faith-like basis for some of the debates on health, weight and weight loss anymore. I just wish there was a place to talk about the intersection of these issues with feminism without feeling that I’m a FA and feminism drop-out.”

What. The. Hell.

What kind of feminism is this?

What kind of movement claims to be about empowerment… but disavows people for making their own choices about their bodies?

What kind of movement claims to be about self-ownership… but abandons people who deviate from the movement’s norm?

What kind of movement claims to be about self-esteem… but treats people like traitors for loving their bodies and wanting to take care of them the best way they know how?

Full body project I still think there is a hugely important place in our society for a fat acceptance movement. I think we need a movement that advocates for treating people with dignity, equality, and respect, regardless of their size; a movement that resists the impossible cultural ideals of beauty; a movement that encourages fat people to love themselves and take care of themselves, regardless of whether they lose weight; a movement that speaks out for fat people’s right to make their own choices about their bodies and their health.

Greta avatar But it needs to accept that not everyone is going to make the same choices. If the fat acceptance movement is going to advocate for fat people who don’t choose to lose weight, it needs to be every bit as supportive of fat people who do.

Our bodies.

Our right to decide.

Period.