When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in the early Nineties, I was planning to go to law school. This is part of my origin story... I was studying to take the LSAT at the library and there was a catalog for New England Culinary Institute there. I'd worked in restaurants in college, and I'd come to understand food as a form of art when I lived in Germany. I also thoughts, 'if I become a chef I will never be out of work.' That sealed the deal for me, and it set the course for my professional career over the last 25 years.
And I was never wrong about that... we have a saying in food service, "if you are a chef and you're not working it's because you don't want to be." Meaning, jobs feeding people are always plentiful. Until now.
I've never regretted my choice to be in food service. I've seen the world, met incredible people, and continue to learn things that astound me. I've also never really worried about a paycheck... I could always cobble something together. With COVID19 I'm faced with a new reality... my business, Girlchef, is on life support. I face the very real question of how I will pay my bills next month. In thirty-five years of food service life I've never seen it turn this hard, this fast. This is scary stuff.
I also think this is what we are built for... adapt and overcome - grit.
My dissertation, Recipes of Resolve, looked at this very thing, the role food plays in helping communities recover from disaster and build resiliency. I know from that work that what we are now experiencing can be approached in a few different ways. The most intuitive for a lot of us is to freak out, buy one thousand rolls of toilet paper and sequester ourselves in our homes. That is actually a really logical response from a psychological perspective. One very real part of disaster is a sense of anomie, or the breakdown of how we make sense of the world. We all have structures that help us navigate life: where and when we grocery shop, where and with whom we hang out to unwind, the list goes on. It's important to note, that many of those things take place around food and food places like grocery stores, restaurants, cafes and bars. When we lose access to those things, or even if access is just disrupted, our psychological ability to make sense of things begins to slip away. "The reference points of private and communal life, those things that allow individuals to make sense of the world, are gone or seriously altered, and that calls into question the normative structures of the social system." (Menck, 2012)
In what I call a "quick onset disaster," this happens almost immediately. What was there yesterday is not there anymore. This can be literal, like if a hurricane washes away your house and your favorite bar, or it can be what many of us face now... those places and people are there but we really can't - or, more importantly in the case of COVID19, we SHOULDN'T - access them. That requires an immense amount of self-control. It's incredibly difficult to shift normative structures, it takes dedicated effort and self-awareness.
We're also struggling because this present situation was also a "slow onset disaster," we saw it creeping towards us, we had time to prepare. This is where we find ourselves thinking, "what if we had done X,Y, & Z differently?" That's such alluring thinking... it's fantasy, and it allows us to place responsibility for our present situation on someone or something else. Don't get me wrong... it's really critical to re-evaluate what went wrong in the management (or mismanagement) of a disaster, but that can't be done from the eye of the storm. It's counterproductive to waste energy and resources pointing fingers. That energy can be better spent preparing, and responding to what is truly in front of us.
Which brings me to the role food can play in this disaster that is unfolding in front of us...
I interviewed a lot of people in New Orleans about their experience during Katrina and the five years of recovery directly after the hurricane. Bits of those interviews come out every once and awhile, and one of them is particularly salient now. I interviewed Jenga Mwemdo, a resident and food activist in the Lower Ninth Ward. (Her interview is accessible on my dissertation, you can get that HERE.) I asked her what happened in the Lower Ninth Ward right after Katrina, and how the community gardens she eventually led evolved. She said that once people started trickling back into the neighborhood they would have "visioning" sessions. They would try to answer the question: 'What do we want for this neighborhood?'
At first the responses were things like: streetlights, sidewalks, pavement. Jenga shifted this question by saying, "That is what we NEED... we have to answer the question what do we WANT. What CAN this look like now that the slate is clean?" One of those answers was a green space for the community to come together in. Another was access to fresh foods in what had been a food desert. And you know what? They got those things, and those things continue to thrive and grow.
Within every disaster is opportunity. I'm not talking about price gouging people for hand sanitizer... I'm talking about reflecting on what you WANT in your life that is not there now. Yes, you need money to pay the bills and food to eat, it's critical that our society help us all find those things. But we also each have an opportunity to reflect on what this disruption shows us about our own needs.
"When physical structures are destroyed, and daily routines severely impaired the schematic cognitive structures they support must find new ways to make meaning in an altered landscape" (Menck, 2012). That means you're old ways of understanding your world are now laid bare for you to see because they are so altered. This is a chance to see what is important to you. What do you feed every day? What do you really love and care about? How do you nurture those things? How might you nurture them better? What do you want, and what can you do to get that?
What I learned in New Orleans was that food, and food places, are critical ways we make meaning. The simple thought of not being able to go to Friday fish fry sends terror into my Wisconsin soul. You've got your own version of this... take a minute and reflect on what it is, see it, and value its place in your life, and the sadness it causes you to lose it right now. It's okay. No, it's good to do that because now you tangibly see the value of that thing, that place to you and your worldview. It is completely natural and normal to grieve the disruption and lose of that thing/place in your life. Whether it's the gym, or your corner cafe... it's an important part of how you make sense of your world and it's not accessible right now. That's profoundly sad, and it should be mourned.
And it will come back. Here's the thing... this is temporary. For the vast majority of us, we will return to "business as not so usual" soon enough. Yes, we will lose people... that's a sadness that will become part of this narrative. It sucks. There's no way to make that better. But our places, and the cultural artifacts we find there will come back, and we will love them even more when they do.
My personal choice right now is to find joy in the rhythms of cooking. This is the thing that always has brought me solace. It's also how I can still engage people I love in conversation. We have social media right now, and it can be a tool for profound connection and care if we make it be that way. So, Girlchef (aka... me) will be posting daily videos on our IG and Facebook page. Silly, totally non scripted things that will be full of errors, and profanity... because that is what it is right now.
The picture at the top of this little diatribe was taken in Vermont at some point in the mid-2000's before I went to New Orleans. I have always love it because it is the sentiment I hold nearest to my heart: good food helps. It helps you to engage your historical narrative and pattern of nourishment (even if that is Spam burgers... wait, especially if that's Spam burger... shit, I don't have any Spam). Food is also a way we can still show each other love, by either sharing it or showing it. So, get your oven warmed up and your IG account going... I'll see you on the other side of this, and we'll raise a real glass to each other.
Until then, follow my COVID Cooking With Claire, and other nonsense on the Girlchef Instagram account HERE, and my personal Facebook account HERE, and Girlchef's Facebook page HERE.
There are some weeks that don’t fit. Times when it seems like bad is definitely winning… it’s the end of The Empire Strikes back… Han is frozen in carbonite, Luke is having an existential crisis, and Leia is left to pick up the pieces.
This week is a little like that. Our country is slowly devolving into a xenophobic, misogynistic miasma; rage feels like it is the normative state of existence for a vast majority of people; and suicide inducing depression has taken one of the culinary world’s greatest thinkers and champions for right in the world.
There’s a heavy sadness that weighs like an August New Orleans evening… it’s fetid and sweaty, but somewhere there is the sweet smell of magnolia. Even that is cloying though, as if the sweetness might choke you in your sleep. And you can’t move very fast or the humidity will smother you, and you’ll drop dead. The only option is to wait it out.
Perhaps that is the hardest part of witnessing history, there is no control over the choices of others. Individually we can’t change the decisions of an orange madman given inordinate power. And we can’t stop people we love from removing themselves from our lives, sometimes in the most permanent way possible. It’s hard not to give into the anger, or just turn away from it all. Both options aren’t options though.
I’m angry at Anthony Bourdain. I’m pissed to the point of tears. How dare he take himself away from us like that? He had so much more to interpret for us, so many more battles to help us win. He was one of the good guys… we needed him. I want to know why. I want to understand the pain in those final moments when that seemed like the only logical choice. I want to have been there to stop it. I want him to understand how much he meant to me and everyone else. I want him to not have hurt so much.
But that’s impossible, because it was the pain that made him so good. He could touch that raw part of himself, so he could see it in other people. That’s the paradox of the truly talented… they feel so much that it hurts – emotionally, physically. The reason they are so good is in part because they hurt so bad.
When I was in New Orleans I remember thinking this same thing about the art of that city (culinary, musical, whatever form it took). So much of that came from a place of violence, inequity, struggle, pain. You want to eliminate those things, but when you do you remove the impetus of that unique space of creation. The suffering is a key ingredient to the creative process. Without the depth of knowledge pain brings you cannot access some forms of beauty and truth.
I have also learned that witnessing the pain and suffering is a duty that we cannot deny ourselves or our communities. When I started my PhD work I remember having lots of conversations with my mentors about the food industry. Most of them had a bucolic image of kitchens and food production, professional and private. I spent more time than I needed to trying to explain that food production is not particularly glorious, and in many cases it’s downright immoral and violent. Food workers at all levels of the food cycle, from agricultural production through restaurants, and on to disposal of waste are often the worst treated and least respected members of society. It is only within the last 15 years that we in the United States have elevated (most white male) chefs into positions of stature. If you stop and look, really look at the little nooks and crannies of how we produce food you will find many ugly things. There is great glory in sharing meals. Many battles can be won at the dinner table, with nothing more than a dull butter knife, but there is infinitely more to it than what ends up on your plate – and that is often founded in pain and suffering.
It is a duty to witness those inequities and call them out into the world. Bourdain did that. I have no idea if any of what he saw drove him to his final act, but I know he understood it for what it was. That is another thing he has taken from us, his ability to see and expose some of the ugliness of the food system… the very things that support those gorgeous photos we all love on Instagram.
And so, we are left to witness now… we cannot turn away. We can’t turn away from the horrors our government is inflicting on the world – the mothers torn from their children for aspiring to a better life… the disruption and destruction of our cherished and hard-won relationships with our allies, none of it. We cannot stop looking at things that hurt because they are part of what makes the beauty of the world… suffering is an ingredient in the recipe of art and of life really. But so is hope. Hope that tomorrow will be better, or at least different. Hope that pain will go away, or at least be managed.
I cannot forgive you Anthony Bourdain for removing yourself from us, but I will always love you, and I take solace in knowing you no longer must carry that pain around. And we will not stop the fight… we will witness, we will report, we will pick up where you left off. Peace brother.
In January of 2018 I started powerlifting with a coach, Obi-Dan-Kenobi. These are some of my follow up emails to him detailing my workouts, asking questions, and providing snarky commentary. I offer them up here with additional recipes, and resources I have used on the path to becoming a badderass than I was before.
Below is a series of emails I sent Obi-Dan when I realized that diet and nutrition were actually kind of a big deal in training.
Saturday, April 17th, 2018
I had to take a little rest today after this trip to the gym. My arms were literally too tired to type this up.
Deadlifts: 1x5 @ 135, 1x5 @ 175, 3x5 @ 175 (I’m giving this a 9 on exertion. It felt completely manageable, but I was done. This week I totally felt this in my quads. When I engage the core, and push out of my quads I can do these with relative ease… I think Eugene was right. It bears mentioning that today was an odd day in that I was really not jazzed about going to lift… which is unusual, because those are usually my favorite days of the gym going week.)
RFE Split Squat: 3x12 on each side @ 17.5 (I tried this with 20#, but that wasn’t happening. I was definitely at a 10 when I was done with these… I hate these.)
DB Bench Press: 3x12 @ 17.5 (I probably could have done 20# on these… I was not maxed out at the end of them.)
DB Hammer Curls 3x12 @ 15 (This was a 10… these seriously kicked my ass… maybe I should have gone down in weight, but I powered through.)
BB Skullcrusher 3x12 @ 30 (I love these, always have. Probably an 8.5.)
Fucking Farmers Carries (I honestly almost started crying half way through these. I don’t know why… and I don’t cry a whole lot.) Although, on a positive note, I can smash beer cans with my hand now. I almost broke one of my boyfriends really expensive bourbon snifters the other day. And my callouses have hardened over, so those don’t really hurt anymore. I actually didn’t even think about the grip on the deadlifts today until I was doing those farmers carries.
I had really low energy today… the deadlifts felt good, but everything else was a chore. I usually do about 11 – 12 on the elliptical, but I couldn’t get over 9 today. I actually think running outside tomorrow is going to be a good change, although the only PR I’m setting tomorrow is “longest time to run a 5k.” However, it’s a Shamrock Shuffle, so there’s whiskey at the end…
On a happier note… there was another woman lifting today! She was really nervous, and clearly didn’t have a lot of experience (she was struggling with the mechanics of how the machines work: setting and moving the pins, loading the bars, etc. all the shit I didn’t know how to do six weeks ago). She worked out next to me, and said she was really happy I was there because she felt really awkward and clumsy. I totally forgot to tell her about the clinic. I’m making cards this week for the Facebook page because a lot of women ask me about what I’m doing, and are interested but all of them have some version of “I feel really weird being over in that part of the gym, and I don’t know what to do or how to start.” We simply have got to change this.
Strong is good Dan… it’s really useful being strong. Just on a practical level… I can do shit around my house, in yoga, at Tae Kwon Do, that I just was not strong enough o do a month ago. Women are at a disadvantage when they are weak… alright, I’m going to get off my patriarchal smashing soap box right now.
See you Tuesday,
Sunday, April 18th, 2018
I’m gonna stop spamming you, but I had to follow up with this because it’s funny. I ran my 5k today and hit a PR of under 20 minutes. That’s a pretty big deal for me because I haven’t run at all since December. I woke up this morning and I felt great. After I ran though, I was totally tapped… I felt like I could’ve run farther, but I just didn’t have any energy. It was exactly like I felt on Saturday when I was doing my farmers carries.
So, I went to go drop food off for one of my clients, he’s on the Bucks, and he loves to hear about my attempts at athleticism! He’s actually really kind about giving me advise… I probably should pay him. He’s the one that told me about the black and blue marks on my hands when I started doing the farmers carriers. Anyway, I told him about feeling like I just wanted to start crying during the FCs on Saturday, and my total exhaustion after running today. He was like… “you just said what is wrong, you said you have no energy, you are tapping out and you need more energy when you go hard. There’s a reason we don’t play for more than two minutes… why do you think those big coolers of Gatorade are on the side?” So I went home and read my sports nutrition book, and shit… he’s right. So I spent the afternoon looking at nutrition timing, which you mentioned last week. Who knew about the importance of carbohydrates and glucose?
I’m just laughing that I have been completely ignoring the whole nutrition component of this… I’m a fucking chef, you would think I would have included that in the plan from the beginning. Okay, lesson learned.
Wednesday, April 21, 2018
OMG… Dan, I found the best book in the world: Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance… I totally get it. I read the whole fucking book last night. So, today I had my little banana before I went for my swim (don’t really love bananas but whatever), and I ate some dried mango (76 on the GI index) after every 11 laps and after I finished… and shit I didn’t get tired, and I was totally not sore after! Then I went home and had a big bowl of vegan gumbo (with 3 kinds of tofu in it… you would’ve loved it!)… I feel amazing.
I am totally consumed with the nutrition stuff. It’s funny because I had like 50 hours of nutrition training in culinary school, but that was 20 years ago… and I never really gave a shit. But seriously, carbs get a fucking bad rap… and protein… we are protein obsessed. I’ll save that argument for when I see you again, but I absolutely do not need to eat animal products to achieve this. I’m very excited about this… clearly!
We’ll see how it goes tomorrow when I lift.
Have a nice surgery!
Thursday, April 23, 2018
Man... I hope you are feeling better. I was thinking about you today.You even get a little video of me doing my squats! I know that will cheer you up!
Here were my numbers today:
Squats: 1x5x65, 1x5x85, 3x5x95 - This was easy... I think maybe it's timeto go heavier with the last set. I don't know what you think about that.
Walking Lunge: 3x10x50 - This was also really easy... I am going to up the weight on this next time.
Pushups: 3x10 - Whatever, these are what they are.
DBell Shoulder Press: 3x12x15 - This was good... maybe could add more weight, but probably won't do it next time.
Single Arm Rows: 3x6x40 - This was good... maybe could add more... again, probably not next time though.
BBell Bicep curls: 3x12x30 - I start with these and I'm like, "yeah, that's too light"... then I get to about the 10th rep and I'm like "Yeah, that's good." Again, probably in a couple weeks.
Cable rope pushdowns: 3x12x32.5 - Again, this was good for now, probably up it in a few weeks.
Farmers Carries - These were a lot easier today. I can make it about half way around the gym without dropping them.
The nutrition thing is key here... dried mangos man... best thing ever.Seriously has changed the game for me. I'm also not sore anymore. There's a quote from the book I read: "Right before, during, and after training, we think of fueling more than nutrition. For all the rest of the meals, we think more of nourishing." I love this quote because it's so close to what I researched in my PhD... except I was looking at the difference between "feeding" and "eating." In the case of my research I was looking at "feeding" as an immediate response after disaster, and "eating" as the social and cultural process of rebuilding community and building resiliency once the immediate disaster has passed. For some reason these two things feel the same to me... but I'm way off topic here.
One final thing... I've been taking my measurements since this whole journey started two months ago and here are changes:
Weight: -5# (again, weight is not an issue for me, so I really don't care about this, but I have a feeling it would be more, except that I am turning fat to muscle.)
Waist: -5" (yep... 5 inches... that's kind of amazing to me)
Chest: -3" (boyfriend isn't overjoyed about that, but who cares) Upper arm, thigh, and calf are the same.
I'll be really interested to see how this changes this month with the switch in program and diet. This will be the first month I have been completely WFPB vegan.
So... take stock out in tofu and dried mangos... and I hope you feel better. I'll check in on Saturday after that lift.
When I was growing up we didn't go on a lot of vacations. My dad had multiple sclerosis (MS), worked a very demanding job as a CFO for a Fortune 500 company, and my mom held that whole ship together... so travel just didn't happen a whole lot. I dreamt of being wisked away and traveling the world most of the first eighteen years of my life.So when I left my howetown and went to college, I went and I never looked back. Ever since that time oh so many years ago, I have dedicated myself to saying "Yes!" to travel whenever it presented itself to me. Russia, Africa, Peru, Europe, anywhere I could get I got. Travel and adventire are a foundation of what Girlchef is about, so this is a space for discovering and sharing that.
I first took Girlchef full time in 2004. I was 34 years old, living in a tiny town in Kansas, with a boyfriend who I knew I really didn't care for very much. My business had no money, and no plan. I had it in my mind that I was going to take a trip... a long trip, and figure that all out. I embarked on a month long tour of a variety of state and national parks. Starting in Omaha I wound my way through the Lewis & Clark trail, down the California coast, and then back east through Zion and the other "red" parks. In every park I developed spice blends unique to that place. It was the first time I really tackled place based food and cooking, and it was a revelation.
I was terrified to take this trip - a single woman traveling alone, no real itinerary, camping alone in whatever state or national park I came upon. It was a call. I needed to go. The first night I camped alone was amazing; I felt such an incredible sense of liberation. No one was trying to kill me. As I continued to travel I found that over and over. If anything, I was a mild curiosity - this blonde chic in her truck turned mobile tent. In the Badlands I was adopted by a biker gang there for Sturgis. They took me to the back country camping site where I woke up with a bison sound asleep next to my Honda Element. Bison appeared again when they surrounded my truck in Yellowstone and quietly accompanied me for several miles down the road... close enough to touch.
So many times on that trip I took risks I shouldn't have... I hiked Grinnell Glacier with one bottle of water in my bag, and nothing else. Oblivious to bears and every other danger. I entered Death Valley through a back entrance, not knowing the park was closed because it was the flooding season. On Glass Beach I wandered into a cove when the tide was comng in, and nearly didn't make it out. They say God looks out for drunks and fools. At least I had those two things going for me.
What I learned on that trip still resounds in me today. The immense beauty and diversity of this country astounded me. The wildness of it, but also the welcoming. Not just the people welcomed me, but the animals - the goats who trapsed up the slopes of Geyser National Park, and all thoe bison! I learned how to be alone, and I learned how to adventure. Stop at every roadside spot. Eat that thing on the menu you've never heard of. Talk to the stranger at the bar.
That period in my life was the beginning of a deep sorrow that would push me to the brink of myself in the years to come, but on this trip I learned that I could find solace in natural places. The trees in Olympia National Park listened to me cry, and they lent solace in the slowly moving shadows of sunlight as the days moved into night. Perhaps the most imporatnt thing I learned on that trip was to get lost, without neccessarily knowing how to get found again, because lost is a place; and sometimes lost is the best place you can find yourself.