Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Oliver's Story - a Tail of Love

It seemed as if the timing could not have been worse. My Mom was coming home from her stay in a care home into hospice that Monday. My sister-in-law's mother died unexpectently Monday morning, she and my brother headed up to Massachusetts. My other brother was to arrive on Wednesday from Santa Cruz. Into this situation my sister had a canine client, Oliver, staying at the house. What a time for a dog sitter to have a pooch under foot. 

Yet, the timing could not have been better. Oliver didn't get under foot. Rather, the body part he wriggled his way into was our hearts, and did we ever need the comfort that only dogs can give. 

As late as Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago, I had not planned to be there for my Mom's death. I saw her for ten days at the beginning of September when she was at the hospital and then the care home. We had a very sweet goodbye together before I headed back to California. But while sitting on the very spot on our couch where I now write this blog post, I changed my mind. 

I was informing friends via Instagram of my family's situation back in Connecticut, and I chose a picture of my Mom's house in the Direct Message. I stared at the picture, trying to imagine what grief was inside. A death in the family and another one coming imminently? I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to be there, to not be looking at the picture of that house, but to be in that house. I checked airline schedules, found a night flight, called my husband and my brother who both agreed I should go, and I packed for another trip back east.

I arrived into a house in the middle of hospice care. Visitors bringing food, flowers and hugs. Kind, strong men delivering beds that go up and down and tilt every which way. Pamphlets on the kitchen table about death, dying and morphine dosages. Lots of adult children sharing bathrooms and timing showers and hot water. My family bungling in our attempts to comfort my sister-in-law as we faced the reality of our own mother's situation.

And my sweet Mom. And Oliver the visiting dog, who never left her side. That dog had a job to do and he did it well. He was on her bed. He was at her feet. He was under her wheelchair. He was under her blankets. He crawled up and laid his head on her pillow. He was doing what dogs do best, being loyal.

Friday night brought a power outage. Seeing that I had never administered morphine to anyone in my life, let alone my own mother, let alone by flashlight, let alone on no sleep since Tuesday night, it was quite the surreal experience. After the lights came back on, it was time for the others to catch some sleep. A plane ride back home to California was set for my brother, the funeral in Massachusetts to attend on Saturday for my brother and his wife. 

Into Saturday morning, it was just me and my Mom and Oliver. And then at quarter past five, it was just me and Oliver. I can't imagine a more perfect gift than to have had that sweet, calm and furry bundle of loyalty with me when she died. 

When hospice was called and all the sad realities of a death in the home were being taken care of, Oliver was content to stay in his crate, safely out of the way. His job was done, and soon his people would come and pick him up. The house was so empty without my Mom, and seemed doubly empty when Oliver went home. 

There are dogs and then there are dogs. Oliver is right up there with the best of them.

Waiting for his humans. His job was done.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Love, in Seven Layers

Growing up in suburbia in the 1960's and 70's meant I spent a lot of time in other people's houses. I can still go up the street in my old neighborhood and remember each family's name. I knew the moms, the dads, the siblings, the toys, and of course the dogs. We played in each other's yards, rooms, backyards and after a long day of playing, often my friends would invite me to stay for dinner. This is where I finally learned some table manners, the hard way, and I found out not everyone ate the same three meals over and over and over.

My mom, who did not relish cooking, tried out recipes in her early motherhood years. Easy recipes I'm sure. Recipes not involving organ meats, or fish bones, or any bones that could be choked on, or spices, or things to sink our teeth into lest we choke, or any sort of meat still resembling in any way the animal it came from. Casseroles were big then, and my Mom latched onto the concept of the casserole with both apron strings.

casserole (Frenchdiminutive of casse, from Provençal cassa "pan"[1]) is a large, deep dish used both in the oven and as a serving vessel. The word is also used for the food cooked and served in such a vessel, with the cookware itself called a casserole dish or casserole pan.
Casseroles in the United States or continental Europe usually consist of pieces of meat (such as chicken) or fish (such as tuna), various chopped vegetables, a starchy binder such as flourricepotato or pasta, and, often, a crunchy or cheesy topping.[2] Liquids are released from the meat and vegetables during cooking, and further liquid in the form of stockwinebeer (for example lapin à la Gueuze), gincider, or vegetable juice may be added when the dish is assembled. Casseroles are usually cooked slowly in the oven, often uncovered.  Wikipedia

We were casserole people. Casseroles were made for cooks like my mom. Once all the ingredients get plopped in, they practically serve themselves. They don't make too much of a mess in the oven, no pots bubbling over, no pans to scrub out - except for that one 13 x 9" Pyrex casserole dish we had. Why only one? For seven people? Because it was ready the next day for another casserole. 

There were three casseroles in our family. We ate them over and over. A lot. Weekly. Semi-weekly. 

  • Tuna Casserole
  • Meatloaf
  • 7 Layer Casserole

I'm not sure if meatloaf is even considered a casserole, but let's lump it in, shall we? I know there were other things we ate, like hamburgers and hot dogs in summer, fish sticks, pot pies, and my Dad's charred-on-the-outside, pink-on-the-inside chicken. Later on down the line, my Mom started making something called Taco Pie, without all the spices of course. And we always had a great turkey dinner on the holidays. We lived all year for those turkey dinners. It was, first of all, not a casserole, and all those potential bones to choke on were positively fascinating to our little imaginations. 

But it was the 7 Layer Casserole that became famous in our household. Through the years my Mom started leaving out a layer here and there, but we still called it 7 Layer. The recipe got lost. It didn't matter, it was more of a process than a recipe. Seven Layer was like an archaeological dig through 1950's cooking. Fresh ingredients, chopped and prepared in a way that rendered them utterly unpalatable by modern standards. And yet we lived to torment my Mom with tales about what the other kids on the block were eating. Pasta with bubbling sauces smelling of herbs and garlic, spicy foods, meat with bones, fish with bones, not in sticks. 

With my Mom's recent illness bringing up lots of emotions, us kids have been having some fun with our mutual memories. Apparently I missed the whole Wheat Germ Cookie Era, which had my sister hiding cookies in a garage vent - they were that bad. And my brother is sure our Dad got so sick of 7 Layer, that's when we starting getting take-out Chinese food every now and then. Whenever we talk of our childhood, 7 Layer always comes up. It's legendary. 

So I Googled it. It's a real thing. Apparently other families ate it too. Not three times a week, but still, it was so reassuring to see that Hunt's Tomato Sauce advertisement for our 7 Layer Casserole. With a woman's very lady-like hand, ever so gently putting the infamous casserole together in such a way as to not make a mess. It is so my Mom.

This month, in a shout out to my Mom, I'll be making as many 7 Layer Casserole variations as I can think of. We will eat them until we cry "No more!" All vegan of course, no ground beef or bacon in our versions.

I did one with chopped mushrooms instead of the meat, and with brown rice. I did another with curry spices and garbanzos. Soon to come will be Italian, Tex-Mex, some kind of Asian flavored one, and maybe a Hawaiian with pineapple. They don't have to taste good, that's never been the point. They just have to be in seven layers, or six, or so, and be made with love. That's how my Mom made them.

It was an actual thing!

Really, like in a magazine.

There were matchbooks!
Seven Layer Casserole Matchbooks.

There were other Hunt's recipes.
Messy recipes cooked by ample women in aprons with pudgy fingers and flappy arms.
My Mom had pretty hands and non-flappy arms, for which I am grateful.

But still, there were so many other recipes.

Eighteen minutes. That's quick!

Goulash! How exotic!

Look at those happy people.

Um, those fish do not look happy.

It has no bones, I'll give it that.

Ugh. Run food, run!

This fish is barfing parsley.
That is never good.

Seven Layer is looking really good in comparison.

Tuna Casserole has it all over this.

Say no to organ meats with lemon.

Those frankfurters look mortified. 

What did this little fella ever do to deserve this?

Yum, finally some dessert!
Wait, no, it's not a cake.
It's a sandwich loaf.
A Seven Layer Sandwich Loaf.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Win WinCo October

Our neighborhood mall is going through an identity crisis right now. For years it was anchored by a Macy's on one end, and a Gottschalks on the other. Various mall-like stores filled out the rest, with Ross anchoring the middle. When Gottschalks closed down, the mall looked like a teeter-totter with only one kid on it. Then Ross left, and Macy's was the lone hold out. Macy's closed this year. A Planet Fitness went in where Ross was, who knows what will happen to Macy's but it was the Gottschalks space that made the biggest transformation.  

They propped up the walls, took out the entire second floor and turned it into a WinCo. I was so disappointed! A WinCo? Right across from the world's grossest Walmart? The Walmart where people barely put clothes on to shop? The Walmart where tube tops are considered formal wear? How many low-end-boxy-stores can we take? I let out a huge groan and lamented, "There goes the neighborhood. We now live on the edge of a shoe desert!" There is not a decent store for miles to the east of us where one can find a cute pair of pumps, sandals or ankle boots. Flip flops from Walmart do not count. 

I had been in a WinCo before, and was not impressed. Immediately upon entering, one is hit with the Great Wall of Snacks. It's impossible to avoid. You have to pass by processed, fried, sugar-coated, salt-encrusted, non-food-food items just to walk in the place. It is not Whole Foods, It's not even Half Foods. It could be called Food Particles.

But I certainly don't want the place to fail and give Walmart smirking rights, so after our 99 Centember Vegan Challenge, where we shopped exclusively at the 99 Cent Store for one month, we were up for another challenge. WinCo it is. In October. It's WincOctober!

I ventured into the incredibly weird entrance. Imagine taking a department store that had had a front, back and a mall entrance and turning it into a grocery store. They had to do some maneuvering, and it seems more like you're walking into a really ugly airport terminal. But once you see it, it all makes sense and eventually you walk into the store.

Grab your cart and pick up some serious speed to whiz by the Great Wall of Snacks. You may see some semi-real food nestled in with the plastic barrels of Cheese Doodles, but keep going, the real food is inside. I promise, if you're very careful you won't end up with a shopping basket full of deplorables.

The first section I hit was the produce. Not bad, not bad at all. It's not all gorgeous and fancy like a Nugget Market, but it will certainly do. The prices are great, the produce is fresh and any place with fennel, bok choy and fresh herbs is plenty fancy for me. I grabbed lots of very hardy winterish veggies - carrots, celery, cauliflower, potatoes, peppers, mushrooms and sweet potatoes, I had no idea of a menu, I just wanted a base of vegetables that don't wilt when I turn my back. For fruit I stuck to bananas and apples. We have a secret source for pomegranates. Shhh.

After produce, I went to the bulk area. Wow. Very impressive. Again, you have to look past the first row of bulk stuff - giant vats of gummy worms, gummy bears, gummy everything. It's an assault on the senses, it made my teeth hurt just looking at all that neon candy. But I kept pushing my cart and I found some real food. Beans, beans, beans. Rice. Bulk raisins. Bulk cereal! Oatmeal for an army. And enough cinnamon to get us thru pumpkin smoothie season. I think the bulk section is the best thing going at WinCo.

They also have a pretty impressive vegan plant-milk area. I chose from rice, soy, almond, oat, coconut and they even had hemp milk. A place that has hemp milk is tops in my book. I hate the stuff, can't stomach it, but still I find it's impressive when someone carries it for the 0.0000015% of the population that likes hemp milk. You go, WinCo!

A few cans of this, some cartons of that, some coffee, tortillas and I was ready to hit the door. I bought a lot of food, or rather I bought a lot of potential food. With much washing, soaking, chopping, mixing and cooking, we have many many meals on hand. October is going to be a Win WinCo situation.

My basket full of adorables.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Two people. One September. One store. $6.66 a day. And no animals were harmed.

The Last 99 Cent Supper
Well, that went really well. Cheaper than expected. Way cheaper. Painless, absolutely painless. And since we didn't explode into a mushroom cloud of bean gas, I think it was amazingly healthy too.

We both ate for the whole month, minus the ten days I was gone to visit family, from the 99 Cent Store. Vegan, all vegan food. Hardly anything processed. And we had some pretty good meals. Tasty stuff. Simple, yet tasty. We got real familiar with the Legume Family, they were frequent guests at lunch and dinner. 

The 99 Cent Store is certainly not Whole Foods where one walks around saying, "Hmm, lets see, where are they keeping the locally-grown rutabagas these days? Hey look! The cage-free organic endive is looking just divine!" No, shopping at a dollar store for produce is more like "They have THAT?!?!" It's simply amazing the variety of produce, even without the endive and rutabagas. It gives one hope.

The best deal by far was the three loves of Dave's Killer Bread* that Ernst picked up early in the month. We froze two, so he had healthy and great tasting whole-grain bread for all of September. For one dollar a loaf. It's normally four dollars a loaf, so he enjoyed every single slice with a side of smirky satisfaction. 

*The Best Bread in the Universe
(Or so say people who can enjoy bread.)

So, what was the grand total for our month of purchasing food in one dollar increments?


Now comes the fast talker at the end that takes away all the fun. Factoring in that I was gone for ten days, we are rounding it up to 


And that comes out to 

$6.66 a day 

for two people who hardly ever eat out, and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner from food we prepare at home in our kitchen. 

What have I learned from this? That a person can walk out of Whole Foods with an empty wallet and a full grocery cart, but not benefit one bit if that food isn't healthy, or if that food sits and sits and then goes bad and gets thrown out. 

But a person can walk out of a dollar store (which of course lacks the ambience and free olive tasting station of a Whole Foods) with several bags of tried and true food staples. With some effort and a bit of chopping, a rice cooker, a crockpot, and some basic spices, the second shopper can be better off than the WF shopper. It's not about the food we buy, it's about the food we eat. And the 99 Cent Store has some amazing food, and when I say that, I'm not just full of beans. Not completely full anyway.

We have another adventure planned for October. Check back in soon!

We factored in the vast amount of dried beans we were left with.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Eating, well, from the 99 Cent Store

I'm almost a little disappointed how easy it was. I wanted this month to be a test of my endurance, a chance to reach down deep and see what I'm made of. Instead, I just found out it was pretty easy. No fan fair, no hot air. Not even from the beans.

Tomorrow is the last day of our #99Centember experiment, where we ate only from the 99 Cent Store for all of September. It wasn't that radical, it wasn't difficult. I thought I'd have some serious Trader Joe's detoxing to do, but when I wandered in TJ''s to use the bathroom this week, I wasn't compelled to buy a thing. I was just highly amused to see that pumpkin is getting into everything. The walk to the bathroom included at least 30 items spotted with pumpkin in them. Oh my gourd, it's a bit much.

We ate well this month, no starvation issues. My husband picked up so much food at the beginning of the month, I hardly needed to shop much at all. While fresh greens were probably lacking a bit in our diet this month, it wasn't the 99 Cent Store's fault, they have a pretty good selection of fresh vegetables. The grapes were amazing, and the red peppers were delish. We ate carrots, cauliflower, Romaine lettuce, onions, potatoes, beets, fresh corn, tomatoes and more. While not exactly an oasis of farm-to-fork freshness, it was not a food desert one bit.

If beans and more beans are good for the heart, our hearts are very happy right now. Between canned and dried, we ate lotsa legumes! We had Bean Chili, Bean Soup, Soupy Bean Chili, Beany Chili Soup and a few more Bean Bonanzas. Right now I have the last bean dish of the month, Crockpot Curry Chickpeas, bubbling away. You can't beat beans on price, so I'll be curious when Ernst does the grand total tomorrow to see how much this food experiment cost us. Then I'll reveal what's on tap for October! 

Pumpkin Soup, from our garden,
Cheap, orange and yummy.
And not beans.

A simple and easy salad.
Romaine, beets and chickpeas.
Which are beans.

One of the many Bean Soups!
This one was loaded with tomatoes, carrots, onions and red bell peppers.

The Free Garden Ratatouille that seemed to last for.e.ver.

And the pumpkin just got into everything.
Pumpkin Smoothies!

Friday, September 16, 2016

99 Centember - Hits and Misses

It appears we are really doing this. We are really eating plant-based food exclusively from the 99 Cent Store for one month, and I have yet to go to Trader Joe's and whimper at the window. There's only one thing I truly miss about my local TJ's, besides the free coffee and food samples. I miss the bag of shredded carrots. These carrots are not shredded grater-style. No, these carrots are put through a transformation that makes them taste so yummy and delicious. I can't replicate them. No one else does them that way. I must soldier on without the amazing carrots.

The thing about shopping at a dollar store for produce is you can't have a certain meal in mind when you walk in. Forget about lists that start with one daikon radish, half a red cabbage, a sprig of dill and a ripe papaya. Nope, you take what you can get and then decide what to do with it. The produce that didn't get rave reviews? The salad I made from romaine lettuce, celery and pea pods was not a winner. The celery had no flavor and the pea pods were downright nasty. Not like rotten nasty, just some bad tasting pea pods. We ate it anyway, because we were sorely lacking in greens in our diet. If only I had had some Trader Joe's Spicy Peanut Dressing. Put that on the list of TJ products I pine for. 

The fresh produce that scored were the more hearty items like carrots, a gigantic cauliflower, celery, potatoes and onions. Surprisingly, the corn on the cob was super. One watermelon was tasty, the next one blech, but that can happen at any store. Two portobello mushrooms, big ones, for a buck. And banana for banana, the price at Trader Joe's was better, but the ones from the 99 Cent Store were the most gigantic bananas I have every laid eyes on. These were pontoon-sized bananas, and after letting them ripen I peeled them and froze them for future smoothies.

The hits made it into some cheap and tasty meals, and I'm having fun with this process. I love challenges, but this one is not as hard as I imagined. Stay tuned for what we have planned for October!

Not exactly brimming with greens, but this dinner cost only 2 bucks!
Roasted potatoes and Cauliflower Hot Wings.

Actually from Italy. Or so said the box.
I was impressed.

Big jar of future bad breath for one dollar.

I made an amazing 99 Cent Store Sauce.
Tomatoes and garlic and mushrooms and olives.
Worth every cent.

We served it over brown rice, with beets and the fresh corn.
Send in salad, we heard the plate plead. 

A rice bowl rounded out the week.
With a salad that didn't disgust.
I got this.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

99 Centember

If I had my way I would shop at Trader Joe's for just about everything. If they don't carry it, I've come to believe it isn't really necessary for life. 

I also shop for groceries in the regular grocery store, at a little Mom and Pop produce place down the way and (when I feel like walking into the giant chiller that leaves me shivering), I pick up veggies and fruit at Costco. I should get up on Saturday mornings and hit the farmers market in the neighborhood, but I don't. My favorite way to acquire produce is when someone says "Hey Jessica, do you want a boat load of _________ from our tree/yard/garden?" Sure, I say, bring it on.

My husband is a bit more adventurous than I am when it comes to shopping for food. He loves popping in the 99 Cent Store to see what he can grab for a buck. I must say I'm pretty impressed with some of the items he picks up. It's not all Cheese Doodles and Nuclear Pink Punch at these dollar stores, you can find healthy choices if you look. Some of the brands are out of the mainstream, but for a dollar they're worth trying.

There is a 99 Cent Store about a mile to the east of us, in one of Sacramento's food deserts. You know, those parts of town that are abundant in liquor stores and gas station mini marts, but sorely lacking in real grocery stores. This got us thinking - could a person who lives in a food desert that contains a dollar store be able to shop and prepare healthy food for themselves? Not farm-to-fork, but more like store-to-spork?

In our case the question gets even dicier - can two plant-based adults live for a month solely on vegan food purchased from a 99 Cent Store? We don't eat meat or fish or eggs or milk and we don't eat any extracted oils. We eat abundant amounts of fruits and vegetables, rice and beans, whole-grain breads and cereals. legumes and once in a while we eat from the all-important food group of chocolate.

We figured it wouldn't hurt to try, so we picked a month. 99 Cents + September = 99Centember! The month was chosen, and the hashtag #99Centember was mine for the posting. 

A jury summons, some work days, lots of quilting, an assembly and that was it!
An easy and carefree month for our great food experiment. 

August became a game of trying to use up as much food on hand as possible. I made salads and casseroles, soups and stews, some better tasting than others. We used up bits and pieces of this, dabs of that, bottles and jars were getting dumped in left and right, leaving the refrigerator and cupboards looking quite pathetic.

Poor pathetic empty produce bins.

Mother Hubbard would be shocked. 

Because a contest of any kind needs rules, here they were:
  • Everything we ate in September, within reason, was to be from the 99 Cent Store
  • Spices and the random sprinkle of flour or splash of condiments doesn't count
  • Homemade jam or cider is OK
  • If someone gives us a boat load of produce from their yard, we say of course!
  • Produce from our garden is welcome, although we're only left with pumpkins
  • We'll track all expenses to see how much (or hopefully how little) we spend

The end of August came down to some interesting meals around here, but we managed. I set August 31st for my big shopping day at the 99 Cent Store. I was going to fill the veggie bins, load up on lentils and we would have canned goods and frozen foods once again.

That last day of August we got an early morning call from my family back east, I needed to get on a plane fast to go out and see my Mom in the hospital. I threw some clothes in a suitcase and made it to the airport for a last minute flight. After some scary days, my Mom is better and settled into a routine to get her strength back. The last thing on my mind was our silly little food plan for September, but I did feel really bad that I left Ernst with his own little food desert right in the middle of his work week. I assumed 99Centember was a bust.

Never letting a challenge pass him by, Ernst went ahead with the challenge without me. I came home to a surprisingly clean house and a refrigerator that had food in it. So here we are, a third of the way into the experiment, and I'm the one that needs to get on board with it.  I spent the morning getting caught up on what was on hand and making a few things to munch on for the next few days. I have yet to forage for vittles in the 99 Cent Store myself, but there's plenty of month left for that.

The vegetables are not exactly prizewinners, but they will do.

Pea pods!
Some were a bit sketchy, but they were peas in a pod.

Not worthy of Pinterest, but this salad had a bit of interest.

I made a huge pot of spicy soup for $4.75.
Our food budget is liking this September just fine.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Heart Lessons

By now, I really ought to know more about heart anatomy. I've sat there too many times now as the cardiologist explained what just happened during my husband's latest procedure. My typical response is a slight tilt of the head, some "Yes" and "Of course" answers, accompanied by much head nodding. The goal is that I nod my head at all the right moments, and that I remember what in the world the doctor is talking about so I can repeat it later to my husband who knows exactly what the doctor is talking about.

The latest procedure in July was going to be different. First, it wasn't an emergency. I could actually do my hair, wear nice clothes and not look like a weepy hot mess while I sat there nodding. Second, I could upload some pictures onto my iPad and whip them out when the doctor started getting all technical. Then I could nod and interject phrases such as "Ah, yes, the good ol' Anterior inter-ventricular artery" and "My oh my, if it isn't that cocky Superior vena cava, such an attitude with that one!" 

I didn't need to nod, I barely needed to have a good hair day. Ernst was so alert after his angioplasty, he went over the videos of his surgery with the doctor mere minutes after coming into the recovery room. They threw around the fancy medical terms and they rehashed what happened, as my iPad photos sat useless. 

So what happened? The team at Kaiser Roseville put another stent in an area that started giving Ernst trouble in June. What kind of trouble? Well, after my husband attempted gargle singing at a gathering, choked on the water he inhaled and practically coughed up a lung, he started feeling poorly the next day. And according to the good doctor, yes indeed, it's possible to dislodge an old plaque in your heart by a coughing fit brought on by gargle singing. Good to know.

What the doctor didn't do is try to fix the part of the heart they thought was giving him the latest symptoms of angina. That section is completely clogged up with scar tissue from his past surgeries. But his heart has built collateral arteries to keep things sufficiently oxygenated. All his other stents are clean and clear. They said to keep up the plant-based diet. Good to know.

The mascot for Team Collateral Arteries.
Go Collaterals, go!