Eating Out of Season

Some people feel guilty about eating too much. Others about eating “bad” foods – you know, the ones that taste delicious usually because they are too fatty, too salty, too sugary, or some combination of all three. “Bad” is, of course, relative.

For me, my letter A of shame comes from eating out of season. Or perhaps worse still – eating foods that will never have a season here in Wisconsin. Foods from thousands of miles away. Bananas. Avocados. I hide them away when company comes, outwardly virtuous to my local seasonal eating plan but hiding a terrible damning secret.

It’s a foolish worry. Food shouldn’t inspire guilt. That’s part of what makes eating so pleasurable. Not to mention the dozens – literally dozens – of bunches of kale and pounds and pounds of winter squash, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and rutabagas I’ve virtuously eaten (and loved) this winter. My mettle is proven – a real medal, perhaps one made from a massive slice of carrot, should hang ’round my neck.

Even so, it’s one I think about every time I go to the grocery store or order from a menu. What’s in season? What’s possibly local? How will that asparagus really taste in February as opposed to the tender bundle I can barely keep out of mouth in June? Is it worth it? Sometimes the answer to that last question is “yes.”

Bananas cower in fear of being discovered behind the paper towels

In some ways, I feel less remorse eating those never seasonal foods than the ones that are just out of season. I know what a really ripe, really delicious tomato tastes like so it’s wan, well-traveled winter cousin is a poor substitute. Even the apple I ate today tasted off – my fall apples finally ran out a month ago so this store-bought apple from South America tasted of a season that didn’t match the view out my window. An avocado, on the other hand, is always foreign – at least until I move somewhere with an avocado season – so I have no comparisons, no trade-offs for a potential pleasure now over the benefits of waiting until spring or summer.

I’m trying to let the guilt pass. You’ll know how well I’ve succeeded if you see a bunch of bananas on my counter.


Cross-Country Skiing on the Radio

My essay on cross-country skiing was featured this morning on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Wisconsin Life.”

And last week, I had a great conversation with CSA farmer Kristen Kordet about planning for the farming season. We looked at seed catalogs and talked about her favorite varieties. She’s a delight to talk to and I think the edited piece turned out really well.


Lessons of Adulthood

Have you ever looked at your life – really stopped everything and took a good look around – and thought, “how did I get here?” It can be disorienting in some ways, if you think back on where you thought you’d be when you were 8 years old or 15 or even two weeks ago when I was only 31 and do a real evaluation.

This thought passes through my mind nearly every time I give a talk. A talk. Me. Where I stand up in front of people and speak about history (usually) for 45 minutes. Into a microphone. The lights down low. With people staring at me. And I actually like it.

Growing up, I did everything I could to avoid public speaking. And when I did have to give talks, I gripped the podium (if there was one) until my knuckles turned white and my fingers ached from the strain, my knees shaking, my face buried in my notes, and my words tumbling out on par with that guy from the Micromachine commercials. I hated it. I hated being on display even if really, no one was really listening or frankly, cared all that much in school. I just needed to get out of school, get through this class, and then I would never have to give a speech again. Never!

But then I became a professional writer.

And I learned the cold, hard truth about the writing life: there’s speaking involved. You can’t just sit in your garret all day, turning out pages of prose for the world to lap up in eager anticipation. Readers want to see you. Or more accurately, readers learn they want to be your readersby seeing you and hearing you speak. And so you speak. And hopefully with time, you get better at it and maybe even start to enjoy it.

Five years on of fairly steady speaking engagements, I’ve discovered something earth-shattering: I like to speak publicly. The realization came slowly, so slowly that at first I didn’t recognize it. One day, in the middle of a talk, I found myself walking up and down the aisle with a microphone in hand. Who was I, Phil Donahue?! I felt suddenly disembodied, like I was watching someone who looked a lot like me but couldn’t possibly be me because I hate public speaking, talking, laughing, smiling, having a great time. But it was me and it is me.

I never thought I’d be up there, much less by choice. Wasn’t the great promise of adulthood as a child the freedom to do what you wanted?

I’m still surprised every time I stand up to give a talk. Surprised at who I’ve become but pleased to know that I could do it all along.



Curing the (Historic) Common Cold

Toads for colds? It sounds like a joke. Or a witch’s brew. But in the mid-19th century, Madison doctor Hugh Greeley recommended a powder of toads for fever. “Take toads as many as you will, alive, [and] put them in an earthen pot,” he instructed. The toads were then set over an open flame. Once sufficiently cooked, they were cooled and then ground to a dark powder, mixed with a liquid – hopefully something strong and alcoholic – and drunk. For prevention, “half a dram will suffice,” counseled the good Dr. Greeley.

Winter in Wisconsin means snow, ice, and frigid temperatures. But it’s also the peak of the cold and flu season. The case was just the same more than a century ago, though the remedies were a little different.

George Howard, the first pharmacist in La Crosse, mixed many of his own special medicinal blends in the 1850s. He had remedies for everything from runny noses and headaches to something far more exciting: love potions. The lovelorn sent Howard letters begging for help. In return, he sent them powders to match a popular 19th century nursery rhyme. Women got “sugar and spice” and all that’s nice, while men got “snips and snails” (no one is quite sure what “snips” mean, though, the original line may have been “snips of snails” with “snips” meaning a little bit). Howard claimed to have received nothing but grateful “thank yous” in return.

A few decades later, Fond du Lac resident Wyman Towns began selling bottles of his special Cold Killer to cold sufferers through the mail. It wasn’t his only offering. He also sold Towns’ Healing Snuff and Towns’ Rheumatic Liniment among other patent medicines. The ingredients of these remedies were kept secret – that’s what made them patent medicines – so we don’t know if Towns shared Dr. Greeley’s affection for powdered toads.

In the early 20th century, reporter Marcelia Neff remarked in the pages of the Milwaukee Journal that traditional Indian remedies could be very effective in curing what she called “neurotic white people.” Most of these remedies were made of native plants ground into powders or pastes or drunk as tea. A poultice of sumac leaves could relieve a sore throat: as could a mixture of bloodroot juice and maple syrup. Headache relief came with a tincture of aster leaves. The boiled bark of red maple did wonders for sore, red eyes.

Botanical cures had a long history in American medicine. European colonists relied on herbal remedies. They cultivated local plants for their healing powers often with the help of Native Americans. So important was the need for medicinal plants that the British crown ordered the 17th century Virginia colony to cultivate gardens of native plants for relief of coughs, colds, and worse.

And if none of those worked, there was always alcohol. Appleton resident Alfred Galpin recalled that his grandfather kept a healthy supply of brandy in his settler’s cabin in case of colds. While the alcohol surely didn’t cure, it could certainly dull or at least distract from sinus pain and pressure.

Sure, many of these remedies may seem ridiculous to us today, but the answer to the common cold still alludes us. So if you get a cold this winter, just know you have lots of company, both in the past and today.


Solace of Tortillas

Growing up, I never ate Mexican food. Never did a tortilla, refried bean, or dab of guacamole cross my lips – at least until I was in college. But now, it’s all I want in uncertain, tired, stressful, and even many joyous occasions. It’s a comfort food I found only as an adult.

On a recent trip, my husband and I drove for hours – days really – looking for something we just couldn’t find. We hit every small town, walked the main streets, searching for a bit of local culture and charm – the kind we run into a lot in Wisconsin. But it was not to be. After another day of side roads and diversions, pulling into a town that promised a historic waterfront with a charming downtown that actually yielded a few mostly closed businesses (and the open ones all empty, rather charmless bars), boarded up buildings, and a large cement wall between the town and the water, we dejectedly realized our search was likely in vain. Tired and disappointed, we headed to the nearest Mexican place, for there’s solace in tortillas.

It wasn’t the first time. Many trips, even ones a little more rewarding, often find us in a Mexican restaurant at some point. A long day of driving or the excitement and stress of being in a big crowded city for several days straight often leave me craving fajitas. Tired and a little dehydrated, we ate Mexican after my first triathlon. A visit to the emergency room after a bee sting was followed by tacos. Our engagement dinner a few years back found us in a Mexican restaurant after a long afternoon and early evening driving around the Olympic Peninsula. My now-husband was a little embarrassed – it wasn’t what he’d hoped our first meal as an engaged couple would be – but to me it was perfect. Perfectly us to end up eating Mexican.

Engagement Mexican - tired and dirty from hiking and driving

Comfort can come in nearly any food, found at any time. It isn’t always something you grew up with or remember having at certain times as a child or teenager. Sometimes your comfort food is something that appears at just the right time and place.