April 2012

Nikki Fisher and Children

Friends, I’m excited to introduce you to Nikki Fisher, an Australian mom and writer with a passion for food and holistic living. Fair warning, though: You might let out a big sigh when you read about her lovely life by the sea. Born in Melbourne, and now living in Blairgowrie, Nikki is mom to River (5) and Sol (2) and married to her photographer husband, Pete. Her work has been published in Epicure in The Age newspaper, The Age Good Food Guide, Cheap Eats, The Sunday Age, and ABC Gardening Australia. She blogs at The Wholefood Mama.

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Zoe Saint-Paul: Living near the beach in Australia conjures up some amazing images in my mind. Paint a picture of what it’s like in your corner of the world.

Sea Views Nikki Fisher: We live on the Mornington Peninsula, a narrowing piece of land that juts out into Port Phillip Bay on one side and Bass Strait on the other. The coast we live on is a very popular tourist destination, particularly in the summer months when residents of Melbourne descend on the area. I enjoy the seasonal nature of living in a coastal town, and the ebb and flow of visitors. I love the power and energy of the sea and feel so blessed to have both bay and ocean just outside my door. I love that whether I’m driving River to school, taking the boys to the park, or running errands, wherever I drive there are views of the sea. The view, the air, the energy is a tonic to me. To be able to walk out my front door and walk to the beach, to climb sand dunes with my family and spend long summer days and nights by the water is my definition of luxury.

You were a food writer and restaurant critic in Melbourne before giving it all up for a different lifestyle. Why did you make the change, and what have the benefits been?

When I was pregnant with our first son, I had moved to the outskirts of Melbourne and was living on the Yarra River in the bush. My husband Pete, an author and photographer, was completing a photographic book about Point Nepean National Park by the ocean. He had surfed this coast for 20 years, and we decided to move near the waves. I grew up near the beach and the brief time I lived in the bush confirmed I’m a beach person, and couldn’t wait to move back.

The benefits of living out of the city and by the beach are the clear air, no traffic, small community primary school, lower cost of living, access to farm gates to buy locally grown food, and daily access to the beach. We spend so much time at the beach as a family and I love so much to see our boys playing in the water, searching for shells and sea creatures, running on the sand, and now learning to surf!

Kids Surfing

You grow some of your own food. Was this something you had to learn from scratch, or did you come into it with a green thumb and lots of knowledge?

I have to hand the credit to my husband Pete and our boys for tending the veggie garden. My involvement is directly linked to turning the harvest into our meals. I love the challenge of working out what we’ll cook with the 50th zucchini from the garden or the tenth kilo of tomatoes. I have memories etched in my mind of my brother and I planting vegetables with our great-grandmother and her taking us around the garden to pick the first strawberry of the season or sweet pea. Having a garden keeps us connected to the earth, nature, and the seasons, and I believe this connection is integral to the health and well being of people and the planet. If we’re not connected to the earth we have no incentive to care for it. It’s such a gift to children to help them stay connected to the cycles of life and the seasons through a garden. It’s also a wonderful way of encouraging them to eat vegetables: Children who are involved in growing, harvesting, and cooking food naturally want to eat it.

Food and cooking is your passion. Do you have a particular food or eating philosophy?

I subscribe to the philosophy that if nature didn’t create it, best not to eat it. I stick to whole, unprocessed foods — fruit, vegetables, fish, organic chicken, kangaroo, and grains such as rice, oats, and barley. The key to enjoying a whole foods way of life is herbs and spices. Learning to flavor your cooking with cumin, coriander, pepper, chili, garlic, and so on reduces cravings for sugar and salt.

I don’t believe in fake food — low-fat, artificial sweeteners and the like. Fats such as avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, butter, and fish oils are essential to good health. Twenty years ago I ate a lot of cow’s milk dairy products and suffered chronic sinus infections until a naturopath suggested I eliminate dairy from my diet. I haven’t had a sinus infection since. I tell this story not to say “cut dairy out of your diet,” but to highlight that switching to a health-conscious (rather than weight-conscious) way of eating happens over time, and it’s important to be patient and enjoy making the changes.

Do you have a favorite food or cuisine?

Boring, but true: I love good chocolate. My favorite cuisine is Thai; I’ve had the joy of traveling in Thailand and enjoyed so much a cooking class in Chang Mai in Northern Thailand. I don’t cook a lot of Thai food but am fortunate to have some friends who spend a lot of time in Thailand and prepare beautiful food that they’re happy to share.

You’ve got two minutes to grab your three favorite cooking tools. What are they?

First, my garlic press, partly for sentimental reasons because it was my mum’s and reminds me of her cooking — she wasn’t shy about using plenty of garlic. Second, my mini food processor — a gift from my mother-in-law gave  and I use it all the time for dips and pesto. Third, my citrus zester. Lemon is one of my all-time favorite flavors, both in sweet and savory dishes.

Where do you find inspiration for cooking? Any favorite cookbooks or web sites/blogs?

The foundation for my inspiration to cook comes mainly from my great-grandmother, whom I cooked alongside as a child, and my mother who also enjoyed cooking, but had less time to do it. I have a sizeable collection of cookbooks, which is one of the joys of reviewing cookbooks for a living! The ones I return to are Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion, Allegra McEvedy’s Leon, Jill Dupleix’s New Food, and every cookbook written by Australian whole-foods chef Jude Blereau. I particularly love her books Coming Home to Eat and Wholefoods for Children. Also, Australian restaurant-reviewer-turned-farmer and cookbook author Matthew Evans’ book The Real Food Companion is a treasure.

Favorite sites include: Whole Food Cooking (Jude’s blog), Heidi’s Swanson’s 101 cookbooks, Veggie Num Num, and My New Roots (my kind of food!). Also, Joy the Baker — her recipes call for way more sugar than I can handle, but I do love the way she writes and how she puts recipes together with such beautiful photos and words to match.

You’re a writer and now a blogger. What have you learned from being a writer?

I’ve learned to listen not just with my ears, but with my eyes and my heart. I’ve learned to be patient, to let the story unfold, and to also expect the unexpected. I’ve learned that the best writing is fueled by passion.

Nikki Fisher

Take us on a brief tour of your typical day.

I wake between 6-6:30 am, thanks to my trusty alarm clock, Sol. Weekday morning duties are breakfast for everyone (fruit in season, followed by poached eggs or porridge or rye sourdough with almond spread), making River’s school lunch, sneaking out the door for a quick run and, if that doesn’t happen, doing a few yoga stretches. I take River to school and either come home and set Sol up with something to do while I check emails, write, read for book reviews, etc; or I run errands and take Sol to playgroup. Fingers crossed Sol will have a nap after lunch and I can do more computer work and get some dinner prepared. I pick River up from school and spend the afternoon at the beach or the park or at home playing. I try to avoid going near shops or computer after school and make that “slow time,” just to play and be together. We eat dinner as a family around 5:30 pm/6 pm. I like to have both boys into bed by 7 pm for story reading and, all going well, they’re asleep by 7:30/8 pm. Then it’s time for me to write or spend time with Pete, who’s thinking of setting a curfew for my blogging!

How do you stay organized? How do you balance your writing and creative life with motherhood?

This is an ever-changing work in progress. I have cared for River and Sol full-time since they were born. With extended family living 1.5-2 hours away, we don’t have childcare on hand. I’ve chosen to spend this time in the boys’ early years with them, rather than seek out childcare, so I’ve always worked during their nap times and at night when they sleep, which isn’t ideal because I’m constantly sleep deprived. But I know it’s not forever.

As for staying organized, being one step ahead makes for a happier home in my experience. I like to have activities in mind for after school — something as simple as a stack of picture books about snakes, surfing, dragons, and pirates from the local library will keep the boys engrossed while I prepare dinner. I prioritize tasks I can do with children around and those that can only be done when they’re sleeping or with Pete. So washing dishes and folding washing happens while the children are around, and writing happens when they’re not. I don’t want them to know me as a mum who’s always in front of a computer screen or on a mobile phone; we limit television to weekends, so it doesn’t feel right to say “no screen time” for them and then see me in front of a screen. This is River’s first year at school, and one task I’ve set myself is to have the house in order — beds made, dishes done, washing on — before I walk out the door, so when I come back from dropping him off I can make a start straight away on working. I rarely feel as organized as I’d like to be.

Fisher Family

Slow living is about things like simplicity, beauty, staying connected, and not rushing through life all the time. How do you incorporate these ideals into your life?

Taking time to stop and notice the color of the water or the sky, making time to go to the beach or the park together as a family, greeting the day with the yoga pose “salute to the sun,” which I’ve taught the boys, making time each day to prepare food and not resort to convenience food. Consuming less. Keeping life simple by having fewer things and giving more time to family, friends, and creative interests. Not scheduling too many activities — I think it’s important for children to spend time at home playing rather than being out a lot or doing too many extra curricular activities. Also, we always begin our family meals with a blessing — to say thank you to the garden or the sea that gave us our food and to appreciate those we are sharing the meal with. This isn’t a common practice in Australian families, but it’s another way of slowing down and being aware, rather just launching into eating.

What is your best tip for living well? 

The truth will set you free. Be true to yourself and everything else will fall into place.

What drives you and what relaxes you?

I’m a hippy at heart and appreciate all the beautiful and simple details of life, but I really thrive on achieving. I’ve been a goal setter from a young age, and the satisfaction of completing something really well drives me. Having solitude relaxes me — walking on the beach, soaking in the bath, yoga.

Toes in the Water

What is your greatest challenge right now?

Making the time to improve my fitness. Also, my youngest son, Sol, is close to giving up his day nap, which will reduce my writing time by 2-3 hours each day, which is a huge amount of time to lose. It will be a challenge for me to find more writing time without giving up sleep!

Your guilty pleasure is…

I try and avoid guilt! Daily coffee in a cafe. Not really sure why I feel guilty about this, but I do.

If you could pass along one important lesson to your children, what would it be?

To live your life with respect for self, others, and the earth — and to appreciate every moment.

Your last meal on Earth would be…

A ripe golden mango. Rocket salad with carrot, beetroot, avocado, toasted walnuts, sesame seeds and pepitas, and goats cheese dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic. Followed by raw chocolate.

What do you love best about your life right now?

My family. I truly love being a mum and being married to Pete. Tiring as family life can be, it stretches me in wonderful ways and makes my heart swell. A friend whose three children are grown said to me, “This time in your life is enriching you in ways you don’t even know yet.” That feels true.

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Thank you, Nikki, for sharing your beautiful life and family with us! If I ever make it Down Under, can I come by to see your view of the sea and maybe try some kangaroo?

Note: This is the fourth installment in my  “Living Slower With…”  series where  I ask interesting women how they live well in a fast-paced world and how they juggle their many priorities. You can find previous interviews here

Images from Nikki Fisher

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Kennedy Center

On Monday afternoon, after paying tribute to my Baltimore neighborhood, I hopped a train to my old stomping grounds, Washington, D.C., where I met B and some friends for the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Wendelly Berry — noted poet, essayist, novelist, farmer, and conservationist — was giving the lecture, and I’d always wanted to see him. (A video of the evening’s program can be seen here.)

Embassy of Mongolia Sign

I had a few hours to kill before dinner and the lecture, so I took my time wandering around the city. Washington is only 45 minutes down the road from Baltimore, but it’s been a while since my last visit. I’m always amazed at the difference between the two cities. While we prefer living in Baltimore — for some of the reasons I mentioned on Monday — our nation’s capital is a fun place to be. It’s pretty at any time of year, especially springtime. There are well-dressed men in hats reading newspapers on the bus, women in head scarves discussing human rights over coffee, and embassies of countries you don’t think about every day tucked between shops along the street. Interesting people are everywhere doing interesting things.

Georgetown Canal

Eventually I made my way to the tony Georgetown neighborhood. It was rainy and windy and my umbrella almost turned inside out a few times, as little squalls pushed me down the sidewalk. I passed the canal and poked my head into a few shops where I found plenty of things I wanted someone else to buy me (a pair of cute boots, for one thing, if you must know). I lingered in a great stationery shop — I’m a total sucker for those — where I found some letterpress note cards with a “Z” on them.

Le Pain Quoitdien

Finally I headed to the French bistro Le Pain Quotidien for dinner with two of my SlowMama contributors, where we sat at one big community table and nibbled on tartines.

The little trip made me nostalgic for my days in D.C. I really miss things about living there — but truth be told, I miss things about most places I’ve lived before, and that’s probably as it should be.

Do you get nostalgic for your old stomping grounds?

Here are some items I wanted to share with you with this week:

  • Speaking of Washington, D.C., today GOOP did a roundup of favorite places in the capital. I can personally vouch for a number of them: The Tabard Inn was one of my favorite places to visit, and the restaurant’s desserts are definite stand-outs.
  • And speaking of Wendell Berry, Mark Bittman recently visited him at his Kentucky home.
  • How far do we push Mother Nature before she yells back?
  • Have you heard of Fogo?
  • Fourteen ways to incorporate children’s birth culture into their lives.
  • Child labor laws gone too far?
  • Never-before seen pics of NYC from over 100 years ago.

Have a slow and fabulous weekend, and I’ll see you back here on Monday!

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

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A Better Salt Shaker

April 26, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

This is not a tutorial.

Seriously, this is way too easy to qualify as a project requiring in-depth instructions and how-tos — but it’s so flipping genius that I had to share it anyway. (And yes, I know I’m only talking about a jar of salt, but sometimes it really is the little things in life.)

I like buying those large boxes of salt to keep in storage, but I hate trying to fit them in my already-packed kitchen cabinets (or trying to pour any small amount from them); this trick I found in a recent issue of Cooks Illustrated (where else?) is a brilliant fix. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of project, so get ready.

First, get a small mason jar, a pencil, a knife, and a round container of salt (preferably one that’s on its way out).

Use the lid of the mason jar to trace a circle on top of the salt container, with the pour spout centered at the bottom. Use the knife to (carefully) cut out the circle.

Fill the mason jar with salt, then cover it with your cardboard circle and attach with the ring from the canning lid.

Look, I said this was going to be easy. Still: Awesome, right? I recently reorganized some cabinets in the kitchen, putting all my dry goods into matching glass jars, and it makes me happier than it probably should that the salt is now going to blend right in, and still be just as easy to measure and pour. This is organization (OCD?) at its finest.

What about you? Found any simple fixes or shortcuts around your house lately?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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Changing Tastes

April 25, 2012

Beer

When I was young, there were two things my mother didn’t make me eat: cooked spinach and liver. Put anything else questionable on my plate — turnips, broccoli, stinky cheese — and I could pretty much cope, but spinach and liver? Anathema. Somewhere down the line, though, I came to adore all dark leafy greens; and while I’d still rather avoid pan-fried liver, I love various kinds of liver pate and have been known to break out in song over that don’t-want-to-like-it-because-it’s-probably-immoral French delicacy: foie gras.

Taste is a glorious sense, but it’s also our weakest. Our sense of smell is powerfully intertwined with it, though, and if you have a keen sense of smell, you probably have a sensitive palate, and vice versa. Everyone’s sense of taste is different. Apparently, we’re born with tastebuds on the sides and roof of our mouths, but as we get a bit older, the only ones that remain are on our tongues. As we continue to age, our tastebuds degenerate, making us less sensitive to some of the foods we cursed as children.

(By the way, did you know that insects have the most highly developed sense of taste? Some have taste organs on their feet, antennae, and mouth parts. And fish can taste with their fins! Okay, back to boring humans…)

Olives

Thinking on it, there are actually a number of foods I did a 180 on as I got older. Olives are one example: I couldn’t stand them, but then I moved to Toronto and lived with a woman who worked in a hip restaurant and put olives in a lot of her pasta dishes. I decided I wanted to like them, so I’d try one every time they were put in front of me. Kalamatas were the first to grab me, and slowly, olive by olive, I fell in love. These days, I’d spend all my evenings in swank speakeasies ordering dry martinis with extra olives if I could.

Wine would fall under the same category. I didn’t like it for a long time, even though I wanted to so bad. Mature, cultured, interesting people liked wine; I needed to at least be able to pretend I was one of them. But there came a day when I didn’t have to fake it. Sip by sip, I went from hate, to toleration, to liking a few varieties, to liking more, to let’s sell everything and move to Napa Valley!

Beer, on the other hand, has never made it past hello. I’ve tried to like it; I can stand a few sips of my husband’s Guinness, and I’ve stumbled on a few Belgian varieties I could be talked into ordering again. But frankly, I’d pretty much rather drink any other beverage. My dislike of beer kept me out of a good deal of trouble in my younger days, and it’s saved me plenty of money and late nights in noisy pubs. But perhaps by the time I’m 80 my tastebuds will be sufficiently worn down to enjoy a good pint.

What about you — have your tastes changed with age? Got any foods or drinks you used to hate and now love, or vice versa?

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul. The first photo above is a beer B ordered recently and loved. And I must admit I thought it wasn’t bad. 

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A Feminine Matter

April 24, 2012

by Ann Waterman

Today I’m going to talk about menstrual cups — what they are and why I think they’re a better alternative to pads or tampons. If the mere idea of one makes you queasy, here’s your chance to exit gracefully from this post. If not, continue reading at your own risk, though I promise to keep this as ick-free as possible.

I’ve debated writing this post for months now. This is an awfully personal matter to write about — and just a little bit awkward, since people I know stop by here and probably aren’t prepared to learn this much about me. That said, anyone who knows me also knows that I’m pretty comfortable discussing delicate subjects, particularly those that are feminine in nature. There’s a time and place for these kinds of discussions, and since this blog focuses primarily on women and slow living, it seems like the subject should be fair game.

I guess what finally persuaded me to write about this is that I wish I had known about menstrual cups ages ago. They’ve made such a difference in my life — my period went from being a monthly nuisance to just an afterthought — and my hope is that you may find them to be as life-changing as I did.

So, what exactly is a menstrual cup? Well, it’s a cup — usually made of silicone — that you insert internally like a tampon, but instead of absorbing menstrual flow, the cup collects it. When it’s full, you simply remove the cup, dump the contents in the toilet, clean it, and reinsert. Unlike a tampon, a menstrual cup can be worn for up to twelve hours, and there have been no known cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) associated with it.

That’s the quick and clinical snapshot of how the cup works, but let me share my own personal experience with one.

Being a swimmer, I was always well acquainted with tampons. In fact, they became my preferred method for managing my period on a regular basis, since I found pads messy and uncomfortable. Tidy and discreet, tampons worked well for me — except in the back of my mind, I could never quite shake the lingering fear of TSS, particularly since I wore them at night. They weren’t cheap, either: If I was feeling spendy, I might splurge on tampons with a plastic applicator, but mostly I stuck with the less expensive cardboard applicator.

I first learned about menstrual cups about 5 years ago when I started looking to into greener, reusable products. The idea intrigued me: Up to twelve hours of protection from leaks sounded amazing, but also too good to be true. Still, reading review after glowing review confirming just this, as well as women swearing they’d never go back to pads or tampons, I thought I should seriously consider trying one. I was finally sold when a trusted friend raved about hers, and I purchased one shortly after.

The most difficult part about the menstrual cup was learning how to insert it: If you’re going to throw in the towel, this will likely be the reason why. It was a couple of cycles before I really felt comfortable and confident using mine, but I’m glad I stuck with it. After consulting a couple of  YouTube videos, some online cup forums, and receiving a helpful folding tip from a friend, I was able to insert it comfortably, and there was no going back. I can count on one hand the times that I’ve leaked, and that was mostly in the beginning when I was still figuring out how much the cup would hold. This was never the case with tampons, particularly at night. I wear a pantyliner as back-up, but those are the only pads I ever use now.

You can use a cup for any activity you would use a tampon for — exercise, swimming, etc. It’s particularly nice when you travel, since you don’t need to bring a lot of supplies — just your cup and some cleanser.  I think the greatest advantage is being able to wear it up for twelve hours, and that means overnight. I normally need to change it a couple times a day for the first few days of my period when flow is heaviest, but after that, I change it once in the evening and the morning until I’m done — that’s all.

Cleaning a menstrual cup is easy. Manufacturers recommend that you wash it with a mild soap or cleanser like DivaWash (which is pH balanced and won’t leave a residue that can cause irritation) twice a day, which only takes a minute. In between washings, you can simply dump the contents in the toilet and either rinse it with clean water or wipe it with a clean tissue (the best method if you find yourself caught in a public restroom and don’t want to be cleaning your cup in front of everyone in the sink!). Once your cycle is over for the month, you can give your cup a deep cleanse by boiling it for 5-10 minutes before putting it away for its next use.

You’ll find menstrual cups online or at your local natural food store. The cup I use, DivaCup, has an online store locator, and the website has lots of helpful information about how to use it and clean it. (This isn’t a paid endorsement, by the way, just information I found helpful when doing my own research regarding menstrual cups.)

So that’s my little woman-to-woman piece of advice for you today. What do you think? Have you tried a menstrual cup? Did you love it or hate it? Would you consider trying one?

Image: Ann Waterman

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Loving My ‘Hood

April 23, 2012

Baltimore Tug

When most people think of Baltimore, they think of scenes from the The Wire — and sadly, every bit of that exists here. But there’s another side to the city, the side we fell for when we moved here from Washington, D.C., almost seven years ago. It’s a quirky, friendly, full-of-surprises kind of town made up of distinct neighborhoods — and that’s what I like best about it.

Baltimore Row House

We live in Federal Hill, a historic downtown residential neighborhood named after a pretty park that overlooks Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. We weren’t in our little brick house a week before we knew most of our neighbors — an eclectic group who welcomed us and had lots to share about the neighborhood. Some were recent transplants like us; others had been here for years. A handful have lived on this street all of their lives. You’ll find the old-time residents sitting on their front steps on fair evenings, chatting up neighbors and passersby. I see people I know at the local coffee shop and on the street, and many shop owners know my name.

It’s not just the sense of neighborhood I love: I’m continually amazed at what’s accessible within a few minutes from our door. At the end of our street is the Chesapeake Bay itself, and a biking/walking trail that winds its way around the harbor and into the heart of downtown.

Inner Harbor

A few blocks away is a historic covered market surrounded by independent shops and many excellent restaurants. In the summertime, there’s a farmers’ market down the street on the campus of an underrated attraction called the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

AVAM Bus One of most the fascinating museums in North America is right around the corner from us in the other direction — the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM). The museum uses guest curators and shows the work of intuitive, self-taught artists.

AVAM Robots

I’ll always remember the exhibit I saw there of paintings and sculptures by people who believe they’ve seen or been abducted by aliens. AVAM has a permanent collection of about 4,000 pieces, as well as space for special exhibits and events. It also houses a fun restaurant where you can get some of the best pre-Prohibition style drinks around.

Federal Hill Park at Sunset

You can’t get a better view of the city skyline than from Federal Hill Park, which is just a couple blocks from our house. On any given day, you’ll find neighborhood dogs of every stripe and children running around in the large, fenced-in play area. There are tourists from every corner of the world.

Baltimore Skyline

The houses here are old, the vibe is laid back, and the people are welcoming. That’s our hood in a nutshell. If you walk more than 5 minutes, there’s even more to see and do, but I’ll save that for another time.

What do you love about where you currently live?

NOTE: Gabrielle Blair of Design Mom runs a periodic series called Love the Place You Live, where she invites her readers to share links of posts they’ve written on what they love about their stomping grounds. I’ve linked this post over on her site; if you have a blog, you might consider writing a post about where you live and doing the same!

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Pancakes & Bacon

Do you ever get stuck on breakfast? Many health experts claim it’s the most important meal of the day, and that makes sense to me, but I’m not a morning person and never seem to have an appetite until I’ve been up for at least an hour or two. Brunch? No problem, got that pretty much down. But sometimes I get stumped on breakfast.

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten in the habit of starting my day with something small — like a healthy muffin, a boiled egg, a small bowl of miso soup, or a shake. Sometimes I enjoy homemade granola loaded with nuts, dried fruit, and coconut, topped with some raw yogurt. On my sadder days, I’ll search the fridge for a few bites of cold leftovers. I’m always looking for new breakfast ideas, though, and with spring and summer coming, there must be some good things I can add to my repertoire. Got any favorites? Healthy combinations that spark your energy?

Can’t believe it’s the weekend again already! I’ve got a full one, and the highlight’s going to be a night out with my contributors to celebrate SlowMama’s first anniversary. Wish you could join us! As a consolation prize, I’ve got some interesting links for you:

Have a slow weekend, and see you back here on Monday!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul 

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Make It or Buy It?

April 19, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

This may come as a surprise, but we’re a bit fond of food around here. We like eating it, we like making it, we like talking about making it, we like thinking about eating it… Yeah. Big fans.

And with that love comes a passion for cooking and a general spirit of DIY in the kitchen that can sometimes border on the obsessive. It all starts out innocently enough — baking your own bread, maybe, or making your own granola — but it can be a slippery slope from there to feeling a compulsive need to make all your food from scratch, using only local ingredients, and slaving in the kitchen for hours on end to serve your (somewhat bewildered) family an exclusively home-cooked meal, which they’d better enjoy if they know what’s good for them.

There comes a point when you inevitably ask yourself: Is it worth the trouble? Or are there some corners that it’s ok to cut?

To Jennifer Reese, the blogger behind The Tipsy Baker and the author of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, the answer to those questions is “yes” and “yes.” After losing a job, Reese set out on a project to economize in the kitchen by doing more cooking at home — even buying and raising some chickens, bees, and goats so her family could be more self-sufficient.

But what she discovered was that not everything she made herself was necessarily less expensive, better tasting, or worth her time and energy. A perfect example is there in her title: Homemade bread is cheap, easy, and delicious — a better value than store-bought in pretty much every way. Homemade butter, on the other hand, can be good, but not necessarily any better than what you can buy in the store; and as it will also most likely be more expensive to make yourself, in her estimation it’s not really worth the effort.

The book goes on like this, covering everything from cured meats (do it yourself) to hamburger buns (buy in the store) to condiments and spreads (do both). Throughout, Reese has great recipes for what works — complete with cost breakdowns and a relative “hassle scale” — as well as hilarious stories behind what doesn’t. (If nothing else, read it for the goat-related schadenfreude.) I breezed through the whole thing in one night.

What I appreciated most about the book is that it gave me permission to cut myself some slack. We talk a lot about slow living over here, but as Zoe is quick to point out, “slow” is a relative term. The trick is finding the best pace — for you and your family — and staying connected to what’s important. Sometimes that means cooking an old family recipe from scratch, passing on traditions and shared experiences from one generation to another. Other times it means letting the little things go, and remembering that the time spent together over the table is more important than whether the biscuits on it are made from scratch.

It can be a hard balance to strike sometimes, and it will look different for every person. Much as I love her book, Reese and I don’t necessarily see eye to eye on, say, the relative merits of canning versus home-cured meats (she has no interest in canning, so she doesn’t bother; I love canning, but for now I’m happy to let the butcher fill my bacon needs). But that’s specific to me and my interests: Some things I’ll cook because I enjoy the process, like with my canning experiments; other things I’ll cook because it’s healthy and economical for me to do it, like chicken stock; and still others I’m happy to leave to the professionals (I could spend a full day trying to make my own authentic butter croissants, but when there’s a great French bakery one neighborhood over, why would I bother?). Different lifestyles, different priorities.

Whatever your interests or priorities are, definitely pick the book up and see what recipes you should give a try — and which ones you are allowed to shelve for good. I’m curious: What are your “must make” food items, and which are you just as happy to buy from the store?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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Managing Relationships

April 18, 2012

Managing Relatiinships

You may remember my saying that I don’t have a personal Facebook page. I think it goes back to a call I got from my brother John a few years ago: He had naively signed up “to see some friend’s photos,” and within 24 hours his entire past — elementary school classmates, kids he rode the bus with, old neighbors, ex-girlfriends, former colleagues, you name it — were all friending him.

The thought of this happening to me was overwhelming. I was already having trouble staying in touch with my nearest and dearest; how was I going to manage oodles more people who wanted to connect?

Just to spell it out, besides my mother and father, I have nine siblings, seven brothers/sisters in-law, and 14 nieces and nephews — so that’s 32 people in my immediate family. I also have four godchildren, plus a myriad of aunts, uncles, and cousins; and then there’s B’s family, who are now my family, too. All of these loved ones live far away, so staying in touch means phone calls, emails, Skype, Facetime, good old fashioned snail mail, and planned visits when possible.

I’ve also attended three universities, held a million jobs, lived in two countries — including six states — and all along the way made amazing friends, some of whom live in other parts of the world.

I now also know fabulous people through the blogosphere and connect with wonderful readers like you every day. I’ve got a (rather neglected) Twitter account, an e-list (that hasn’t heard from me in a while), a Pinterest account, and a SlowMama Facebook page. There’s more, but I’ll stop.

I love people and consider relationship building to be one of the things I’m good at. And (dare I say it?) I’d like to be open to new and more relationships, because meeting and bonding with great people is one of the best things in life. But at times, I’m bewildered about how to manage it all.

Can you relate?

Here’s what I’ve learned so far that’s helped me (and I’m still learning, so if you’ve got a few thoughts or tips on this, I’d love to hear them):

  • Don’t mistake “connecting” with friendship. You can connect with many people, but friendship has to be nurtured and mutual.
  • Fantasize about the day when you and all your family and closest friends will move to the same small town and be able to hang out on each others’ front porches, sipping tea and shooting the breeze.
  • Try not to cry when you realize this is never going to happen.
  • Never feel obliged to keep up relationships just for the sake of it — some are only meant for a season. It doesn’t mean you’re unkind, or that those relationships were meaningless.
  • You can’t be best friends with every amazing person you meet. And that’s okay.
  • You don’t have to give everyone equal time.
  • Schedule a certain amount of time daily for emails, phone calls, social media sites, blog checking, etc. — then it won’t feel like it’s all taking over your life.
  • Nothing replaces face-to-face time. Turn virtual connections into real life encounters if and when you can — it will make those relationships richer. (Or not.)
  • It’s okay to say no or take breaks from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs (not SlowMama, of course!) or any other virtual hangout place.
  • Focus on the relationships and social connections that matter most to you.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Any words of wisdom?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Every Breath You Take

April 17, 2012

by Alissa Lively

For the past couple of years, I’ve struggled with insomnia. When I got into bed, I just couldn’t switch off. I’d lie there for hours, thinking or not thinking, sometimes with a particularly annoying song playing over and over in my head. It got to the point where I would look at the clock and burst into tears because it was 2 am and I was still awake.

I feel like I tried a million ways to fix the problem, but in retrospect it was probably more like two — and now that I think about it, surfing the interwebs and watching old episodes of Scrubs online are kind of the same method… Okay, so I wasn’t very methodical in my efforts to kick the problem. But I figured if I stayed awake until I was completely worn out, I’d eventually collapse from exhaustion. Problem solved!

Relief finally came from an unexpected source when I borrowed French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano from a friend. I’d been under the impression that it was more of a memoir than a diet book, so I ended up skimming it more for the anecdotes than anything else. (I’m a sucker for the personal anecdotes of complete strangers.)

But near the end of the book, Guiliano discusses breathing. She advises slow, controlled breathing and what she calls a “slowdown to sleep.” (Check it out here — I did steps 1 through 3.) I decided to give it a shot, and the first night I was asleep within two minutes. I slept through the night and woke up incredulous and better rested than I had in two years! Since then I’ve fallen asleep this way every night, and my insomnia is a thing of the past.

When I got past my daily early morning rejoicing, I recalled an article about breathing that I read online (probably at 1 am when I should have been asleep) that spoke about the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. I couldn’t find the article for this post, but it reflects what I discovered from other sources, too: Most of us do not breathe correctly.

Think about that time you were trying to squeeze into your roommate’s dress in college, and that darn zipper wouldn’t budge. So you call in reinforcements and she handles the zipper while you inhale, right? Your shoulders go up, your waist shrinks a little, and voila! You: 1. Dress: 0. It’s not worth mentioning that you can’t quite breathe, because you know what they say: One night of suffocation isn’t going to kill you.

This is a perfect (albeit slightly extreme) example of incorrect breathing, where your chest expands on the inhale and your abdomen expands on the exhale. Breathing from your diaphragm consists of inhaling slowly through your nose (expanding your abdomen as your diaphragm moves down), holding the air in your lungs, and then breathing out through your mouth. Apparently, we are born breathing this way and only later move into the more common but less beneficial “chest breathing.”

Darth Vader. Definitely not a diaphragm breather.

Chest breathing consists of shorter, shallow breaths that do not fully expand the lungs and, in turn, provide less oxygen to the blood and fewer nutrients to the body’s cells. This less-efficient breathing can contribute to anxiety, fatigue, headaches, heightened pain perception, hypertension, and trouble relaxing (!), to name a few.

It seemed crazy to me that just breathing could be the cause of so many problems. But then it occurred to me that this “just breathing” thing was a pretty crucial part of, oh, you know, survival. Along with eating, breathing is the way that our bodies continue to function and thrive, so it makes sense that how you breathe has a direct effect on your physical and, in my case, emotional well-being.

It seems almost ludicrous to suggest that we should slow down to focus on our breathing — and yet, as integral as it is to all of our body’s systems, it would really be ludicrous not to pay more attention to it.

What about you? Are you a chest breather or a diaphragm breather? (I promise I won’t judge.) Do you have any breathing methods that help you sleep or calm you down?

Images: 1, Alissa Lively; 2, Lucasfilm Ltd.

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