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Monthly Archives: April 2015

“Healthy Dish of the Day”

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.56.45 AMA cheesy frittata packed with spinach, a pea salad dotted with pieces of feta and mint — two of my favorite dishes from “Healthy Dish of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year,” a Williams Sonoma cookbook by Kate McMillan. It’s a book for celebrating the seasons, for embracing the variety and abundance of seasonal produce and the color and vibrance of healthy cooking.

In addition to “seasonal vegetables,” the introduction proclaims an emphasis on “lean proteins… whole grains and good fats…” Each month’s recipes start with a calendar of meals, accompanied by a brief explanation of reoccurring themes and ingredients for the season. In my view, the calendar would be far more useful if it was organized around using up ingredients in successive recipes. Instead, it’s a way to whet your appetite at a glance, with each day’s dish calling for its own separate set of fresh, aka expensive ingredients. Take the first and second of March — a “spicy vegetable hash” calling for both sweet and Yukon gold potatoes, jalapeño pepper, plain yogurt, lime wedges and fresh cilantro, among other things, right next to “stir-fried pork and sugar snaps with soba noodles,” requiring Asian sauces/vinegars/oils, green onions and fresh ginger in addition to the title ingredients. Especially with the emphasis on fresh ingredients, you’d think Ms. McMillan would repeat more of them and organize the meal plan accordingly. Then again, it does bear the Williams Sonoma brand, so frugality may not be a fair expectation 🙂

That said, the monthly calendars can just as easily be used as a source of inspiration for ingredients to try. Say you’re visiting your local farmer’s market in March. A quick peek at the March spread might nudge you toward more generous helpings of swiss chard or fava beans, as opposed to that helpless feeling when confronted with large quantities of fleeting, seasonal produce. The large amount of recipes — it’s practically a tome — means that every five or six suppers receive their own full page photograph, which makes perfect sense but is still a little disappointing, in this digital age where food blogs display ten or twelve process photos for a single recipe. You can’t help but gravitate toward the dishes that are photographed. On the plus side, each recipe is accompanied by a note that either summarizes the essence of the dish — “fluffy ricotta-and-artichoke-stuffed ravioli sit in a pool of light, fragrant vegetable broth” — expounds on its nutritional value, provides historical context or suggested variations.

Here’s a brief sampling of each month’s themes and ingredients:

January

The emphasis is on root vegetables and “warming spices, such as turmeric, cayenne, curry paste and red pepper flakes.” Traditional comfort foods are made healthier with alternate cooking techniques, such as pan-searing instead of frying, and the abundant use of rich and creamy vegetables. As you might imagine, stews and soups are a natural way to create healthy food out of comfort food: A version of minestrone uses extra vegetables and low-sodium chicken broth, and “Asian-Style Chicken Soup” transforms your basic chicken noodle into something greener, spicier and more piquant. A vegetarian cassoulet replaces the traditional pork and breadcrumb mixture with meaty mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, beans, celery, carrots and potatoes.

February

McMillan encourages the reader to infuse winter dishes with color and fresh produce, and to pay attention to the flavor enhancing properties of sauces and garnishes. Winter’s inclination toward meat and potatoes is acknowledged, but the protein and carbs are lean — scallops, salmon, lentils eggs, quinoa, barley and whole-wheat penne. I’m especially keen to try the “Moroccan-Spiced Roasted Vegetables and Quinoa” and the “Roasted Salmon with Avocado-Grapefruit Salsa.” Oh, and “Broccoli Rabe and Olive Pizza.” Oh, and “Cauliflower Steaks with Caper-Anchovy-Garlic Sauce.” Okay, I’ll leave it at that.

March

The March dishes place spring’s green produce center stage — asparagus, snow peas, arugula…the list goes on. A platter of grilled endive and asparagus, boiled fava beans and orange slices tossed with orange juice, olive oil, salt and pepper is an unusual, textured take on a spring salad. On March 31st, McMillan tosses blanched asparagus, baby carrots and sugar snap peas with angel hair pasta, tomatoes, fava beans and Parmesan cheese.

April

The emphasis on green, seasonal produce continues, alongside grilled meats and spring herbs like dill and chives. “Roasted Asparagus Farrotto” takes the nutty, magnesium-rich grain farro and cooks it (with olive oil and balsamic vinegar roasted asparagus) in the style of risotto. Here’s the pea salad whose praises I was singing earlier:

 Pea, Feta & Mint Salad

3 cups shelled English peas
2 T. olive oil
2 T. minced fresh mint
Salt and pepper
1 T. red wine vinegar
3 oz crumbled Feta cheese

1) Blanch the peas for 1-2 minutes in a pot of rapidly boiling, lightly salted water. Immediately transfer them to an ice water bath. Drain and pat them dry.

2) Toss the blanched peas with the olive oil, mint, 1/2 tsp. salt and a crackling of pepper. Just before serving add the vinegar and the cheese.

May

May celebrates lighter, al fresco dining — think salads, fish, grilled pizzas. Polenta is also frequently used as a foil for spring veggies: on May 1st, McMillan braises artichokes and serves them with shallots, peas and fresh herbs over a bed of polenta. On the 29th, she roasts asparagus and cherry tomatoes with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a few tablespoons of parmesan cheese, accompanied by wedges of grilled polenta. Apparently polenta contains “cartenoids,” which is good for your eyes and heart.

June

June presents simple combinations of fresh summer vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. I’m into the June 15th salad that mixes roasted peppers, eggplant and zucchini with goat cheese and crisp red leaf lettuce. And the idea of grilling whole wheat pizza dough and topping it with nothing more than a simple salad of mixed greens, sliced plum tomatoes and parmesan shavings. Or on June 27th, brining pork chops in cider vinegar, brown sugar, berries and red pepper flakes and serving it with grilled plums, peaches and nectarines.

July

Corn and tomatoes get their due in July — tomato and arugula frittatas, scallops with avocado-corn salsa, smoky grilled chicken and corn, tomato and bean salads with toasted bread crumbs… McMillan also suggests grilling traditional summer dishes to vary flavors — for example, “Ratatouille on the Grill.”

August

“Vine vegetables” are recycled throughout the month, such as tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. For example, eggplant is broiled and puréed with Greek yogurt, parsley, lemon juice, garlic, mint, salt and pepper, then spread across grilled Naan and topped with grilled red onions. On the 22nd, zucchini and peppers are julienned and sautéed, then served with buckwheat fettuccine, melted goat cheese and fresh herbs.

September

More tomatoes and zucchini, and a transition into fall with light soups and stews. A grilled portabello burger with tomato-ginger jam and sautéed red onions looks particularly scrumptious.

October

This month’s meals emphasize the expected assortment of fall produce such as pears, apples and butternut squash showcased via more pastas and whole grains. For example, there’s a roasted butternut squash whole-wheat pizza with goat cheese, Parmesan and arugula, and a whole-wheat flat bread with caramelized shallots, Monterey jack cheese and thin slices of grilled chicken and raw apple. Here’s the recipe for the spinach frittata:

Frittata with Spinach, Roasted Peppers & Gruyère 

8 large eggs
2 T. low-fat milk
Salt and pepper
2 cups baby spinach
2 olive-oil packed roasted red peppers, drained and chopped (or a cup fresh)
1/4 cup shredded Gruyère
1 T. unsalted butter
2 T. olive oil
2 T. finely chopped yellow onions
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. fresh chives
1 tsp. fresh parsley

1) Whisk together the eggs, milk, 3/4 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper. Add the spinach, peppers and cheese.

2) Preheat the broiler. Meanwhile, melt the butter and oil in a 12-inch ovenproof frying pan. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onion for 2-3 minutes and the garlic for an additional minute.

3) Pour in the egg mixture, reduce heat to low and cook until the edges are firm, about 4-5 minutes. Lift the edges with a spatula, tilt the pan and let the uncooked eggs run beneath. Cook 4-5 minutes longer, until the eggs are almost set.

4) Broil the eggs for about 2 minutes, until the top sets and browns slightly. Transfer the baked frittata to a flat serving plate and sprinkle with the fresh herbs. Cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temp.

November

For heartier, fall fare, more protein is mixed in during November, such as turkey, pork and lamb. Star produce items include cranberries, pumpkin and dark greens. For example, on the 29th, McMillan stir-fries lamb with broccoli and mushrooms and on the 25th, she fries chard, eggs and polenta in olive oil and tops them with a yogurt garlic sauce. But even in November, the produce has a fresh, crunchy flair, including an apple-jicama relish for “Pulled Chicken Sliders” and a pineapple-avocado salsa for Mahimahi.

December

McMillan suggests lightening the rich foods of the holidays by using olive oil as a substitute for butter and root vegetables (again) as complex carbohydrates. In addition, whole grains pepper the menu, such as “Spaghetti with Collard Greens, Hazelnuts and Caramelized Onions” and “Kale, Turkey Sausage and Barley Stew.” I’m also drawn to a dish of seared scallops garnished with shredded brussels sprouts and prosciutto.

The great thing about cooking with so many vegetables is that most of these meals can be enjoyed year round, even though it’s ideal to enjoy produce at its peak. I made the October frittata this spring. Happy eating, and healthy cooking 🙂

Lila

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 8.55.59 AMMarilynne Robinson’s newest novel, “Lila,” tells the story of a woman plucked from her family’s doorstep by a migrant worker, Doll, subsisting on farm work from one cornfield to the next. When we first meet her, an adult Lila has been waiting out the days in a small Iowa town, sleeping in a shack and idly tending the town preacher’s garden. She and the preacher, John Ames, develop a strange intimacy borne of Lila’s spontaneous gestures of affection, her poverty and vulnerability, her abrupt, disarming questions about God and religion.

As their relationship deepens, Lila confronts the many hardships of her past, trying to reconcile her pervasive feelings of shame and loneliness with the admiration and appreciation she incites so naturally in the wise old reverend. Between haunting flashbacks of her past, sparse, charged conversations with the reverend in the strange tranquility of their new home together and long passages revealing her passing thoughts about faith, loneliness and love, we get a searing portrait of a mysterious, paradoxical character, reflecting the deep mystery of life itself.

Lila’s relationship with the preacher is often shrouded in long, loaded silences. Her memories of being a prostitute, washing bloodstains off her caretaker after a knife fight, sleeping in the dirt with a wet rag over her face to shut out the dust, are confided to the reader in detail and then guarded from him, replaced by searching, philosophical questions about the Bible and offhand, defensive warnings like “You don’t know me” and “I never trust anyone.”

As for the reverend, we can only glean as much about his feelings and thoughts as Lila shares from the outside: his ongoing attempts to make her comfortable in a domestic, ladylike setting, his fears that she’ll leave, coupled with his pains to give her space, his deliberately unresolved, open responses when they discuss religion. His strong attraction to Lila appears to be connected to his intuitive beliefs about God and grace, as if Lila’s earnestness and honesty strikes a nerve in his lifelong pursuit of Christian truths. He marvels at the doggedness with which she seeks out difficult chapters from the Bible, like Job and Ezekial. The instinctive kind of raw kindness that Lila demonstrates to strangers, including his deceased wife and son, whose graves she attends with roses. The boldness with which she seeks him out, stealing his sweater, and asking him to marry her, then retreats, grappling with openness and trust. He often comments on her unpredictable nature. We can gather that her ability to surprise him is one primary reason she stirs him up. But the mystery of their bond, balanced by small, rich moments that we witness feeding it, reinforces the intensity and sacredness of falling in love.

There’s a scene where Lila returns to the shack she’d been barely surviving in before they met, presumably to retrieve a jar of money hidden under the floorboards but more deeply because returning to that place of poverty and isolation makes her feel like herself again. She feels compelled to escape the reverend’s trusting, forgiving embrace.  When she gets there, she meets a boy who ran away after hitting his father with firewood, possibly killing him. Out of pity she leaves him her coat and the money, wandering back home without protection from the bitter cold. The reverend is out looking for her when she crawls shivering into their bed, and when he gets home, he’s pale, weary, drawn, visibly shaken by Lila’s disappearance and the sight of a potential murderer wearing her things. She tells him she felt sorry for the boy and his eyes fill up with tears, saying “I do know you.”

Given their vast differences — his education, social connectedness and familial roots in the town, her nomadic childhood, piecing together a fluid perception of the world from one field, one odd job to the next — their union highlights a truth that applies to all relationships, though it is exaggerated in their case: the fact that every human being is fundamentally a mystery to each other, no matter how familiar. That loneliness isn’t a product of being alone or even a lack of intimacy, but rather arises from fleeting impressions of the world’s vast contradictions. And so Lila’s loneliness persists. For example, she struggles with the notion that her beloved Doll was apathetic toward religion, and in the most objective sense, a grave sinner. Her loyalty and love for Doll puts her at a distance from the reverend, whose worldview doesn’t allow Doll the same wholehearted acceptance and unequivocal loyalty.

I read the Pulitzer Prize winning “Gilead” about five or six years ago, to which Lila is the prequel. In “Gilead,” the reverend writes to his and Lila’s now seven-year old son as he prepares to die. As with most books, I hardly remember any specifics, only the general impression that it was sad, spiritually rich and beautifully written, that I remember loving it. “Gilead” is absolutely worth a read, but it’s worth mentioning that “Lila” stands alone from it, self-contained in its exploration of similar themes such as the workings of grace and the mystery of everyday life.

And Robinson’s language is a reason unto itself. As with “Gilead,” her writing about Lila is pared down, concrete and immediate, grounded in what Lila observes, remembers and wonders. In Lila’s humble way of taking in her surroundings and weighing her past, never overreaching for meaning or presuming to understand life’s mysterious nature, the prose possesses an elegance and astuteness. On that note, I’ll leave you with a handful of my favorite quotes:

“Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.”

“She loved the smell of dirt, and the feel of it. She had to make herself wash it off her hands.”

“Lila’s thoughts were strange sometimes. They always had been. She had hoped getting baptized might help with it, but it didn’t.”

“She knew a little about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America — they had to call it something.”

“In that letter he had said there’s no such thing as safety. Existence can be fierce, she did know that. A storm can blow up out of a quiet day, wind that takes your life out of your hands, your soul out of your body.”

“The old man would look into her face for sadness or weariness, and she would turn her face away, since there was no telling what he might see in it, her thoughts being what they were.”

“Now here she had this preacher, maybe the kindest man in the world, and no idea what to do with him.”

“She thought for a few days that she must have come to the end of her life, because it felt so much like the beginning of it.”

“So. ‘Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers to us.’”

“‘I can’t love you as much as I love you. I can’t feel as happy as I am.’”

For more about “Lila,” here is the New York Times book review.  

Saint Louis Days, Saint Louis Nights

eddiejdf a thousand forks CC BY-NC-SA 2.0It’s been 12 days and 13 nights since Padraic and I made our way from Chicago to Saint Louis. I’m taking a break from willpower talk to celebrate some of the good food we’ve enjoyed here since our wind down I-55, in full view of funnel clouds and spectacular displays of lightning, in the thick of that eery calm and loaded sky that characterizes tornado weather in the Midwest. We stick pretty resolutely to a weekend night dinner out, so no sooner had we unloaded the U-Haul, set up (temporary) house in my grandmother’s guest cottage and rid ourselves of the wet dog smell that was a byproduct of hauling boxes in thick sheets of rain, we were on the prowl for a good restaurant. And now, I’ll savor it once more by describing the stuff we ate! And I mean…in detail…thanks for indulging me in this notably privileged, comfortable business of blogging about food 🙂

Publico

This new, Latin American gastropub is located in the Delmar Loop, a strip of restaurants, shops and music venues near Washington University (and a throwback to my weekend nights in high school). We got there around 8 o’clock, so we decided to keep our small plate sampling very small: two tacos al pastor consisting of “spit roasted pork shoulder, pineapple, guajillo, crema, charred onion salsa” and an arepa, or corn pancake, topped with roasted meat. Our meal was delicious, notwithstanding the frozen margarita that I ordered because it was cheaper than the classic version. Sipping tequila in semi solid form gives me quite the brain freeze.

Whiskey and Soba, Sauce Magazine, and Feast Magazine have put their collective finger on the pulse of this place, so I’ll do my best to summarize: The star of the menu, as described by Feast, is the restaurant’s “custom-made wood-burning hearth,” on prominent display towards the back of the space. As outlined by Whiskey and Soba, “the menu is split into 5 sections: crudo (raw dishes), Platos Pequenos (small dishes), Arepas (corn ‘pancakes’), Tacos, and A La Parilla (grilled).” The decor is sleek and modern, with a big, backlit bar occupying considerable space in the center and a line of brown-toned booths underlying wooden tree sculptures along the wall. We sat at the bar — the bottles grouped casually on large countertops, without fussy shelving, and cutting boards with slices of lemon, lime and other garnishes in full view. You really get to watch the bartenders do their thing. The food was served on colorful china with vintage floral patterns. The meal was at once light and rich, a welcome change from the heavy, sticky, cheesed-out feeling of so many Mexican joints. For two small plates and two drinks, I think our tab was a scant 30 bucks.

Robust Wine Bar

On our second Saturday night in town I had the chance to sample the dinner menu of this Webster Groves hot spot, alongside a flight of crisp, summery whites. A mixture of California and Oregon brands, the wine description touted notes of peach, pear, mango, honey dew and passion fruit, tasting subtle and fragrant while maintaining a desired acidity and dryness. As for food, I recommend the plate of Délice de Bourgogne cheese from France, with a moderately sized but uber creamy cheese wedge, thin slices of buttery toast, dried apricots and salted Marcona almonds. The Bresaola Carpaccio Style is also delicious: paper thin slices of salt-cured beef topped with arugula, shaved Parmesan and truffle oil. Check out their dinner menu for a full list of what’s available — next time I’ll have my eye on the Green Goddess salad with oven-roasted beets, the Shrimp & Grits and the Roasted Mushrooms, and possibly a taste of the Goat Cheese Cheesecake, you know, when I’m taking a break from my pursuit of willpower.

Robust’s wine menu is organized by wine profile, dubbed the “robust factor,” which makes the beverage selection and food-pairing process more intuitive, less painstaking for a wine novice like myself. The chef is Robert Hemp V, with a food philosophy that keeps things simple and local. As Evan Benn writes for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, he “manages to take broad cooking influences — European, American, Meditteranean and Asian elements populate Robust’s menu — and present them in ways that complement rather than compete with what’s in your glass.” A few years ago, the restaurant opened a Washington Avenue location in downtown Saint Louis that caters to a crowd of “locals, tourists…and conventioneers.” There’s also a Robust in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Meanwhile, I’ll recommend a local cookbook, titled “Saint Louis Days, Saint Louis Nights,” compiled by the Junior League of Saint Louis, to tide you over between weekend night dinners out. I’ve been making French onion soup from this book for years, requiring nothing more than a few onions, beef or chicken broth, a spoonful of flour, butter, Parmesan cheese and a sturdy, crusty loaf of bread. It also contains a notably no-fuss recipe for a whopping three loaves of pumpkin bread. In fact, all the recipes are decidedly no-fuss, one reason I gravitate towards them when I want something substantial and simple, or on the rare occasions when I’m cooking for a crowd. For a light but filling dinner series of spring dinners, try making a batch of “Scrumptious Eggs” on a Sunday afternoon. Happy eating.

Scrumptious Eggs

Tools

9×13 casserole dish
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Sauté pan
Large mixing bowl
Whisk or fork
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
3/4 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1/2 large onion, chopped
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted, plus extra for the dish
1 cup cubed ham or bacon
11 eggs, beaten
1 3/4 cups milk
3/4 cup flour
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

  • Butter the casserole dish and place half of the cheese on it.
  • Clean the mushrooms with a moistened paper towel and cut into slices. Chop the onion. Sauté the mushrooms and the onion in the butter until tender. Place the cooked vegetables over the cheese.
  • Cook, cool and chop the bacon, if using, then spread the ham or bacon on top of the mushroom mixture.
  • Beat together the eggs, milk, flour, parsley and salt.
  • Pour this mixture evenly over the casserole and top with the remaining half of cheese.
  • Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes.

Chapter One, Willpower

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0Picture a group of twenty year-olds scattered around a dance studio, facing each other in pairs, leaning forward on their toes, noses touching. This was the first day of a Performance Studies class I took — for one day, before dropping it — called “Performance and the Body,” or something to that effect. Our introduction to the weekly, four-hour class was to stand as close to our partner for as long as we could, as still as we could. Afterward we debriefed on the challenges of this task, and many of us remarked that it was really difficult not to lob their partner with a big kiss. Nobody yielded to the temptation — one of my stranger feats of willpower.

As mentioned last week, I’m in the middle of reading Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, part history, part psychological study, part self-improvement book. Chapter one begins with a discussion of pop singer Amanda Palmer, a Dionysian, Lady Gaga type who doesn’t exactly conjure the traditionally straight-laced, Victorian idea of “willpower,” and yet, as the authors are wise to point out, who possesses it in abundant supply. She first honed her powers of will by standing stock still on top of a box, dressed as a bride in the middle of Harvard Square. She could manage it for about 90 minutes at a time, not being able “to scratch if she had an itch, wipe her nose if a piece of snot started to dribble down, swat at a stray mosquito…” She was doing nothing, but the discipline of being totally blank-faced and nonreactive was itself a challenge. Reminds me of how my old drama teacher used to yell, “F— YOU!” at us, as in, “focus you.”

Actually, there are four categories of willpower, according to this book:

  • Control of thoughts — this is accomplished by focusing
  • Control of emotions — this is accomplished through “indirect strategies,” such as distracting yourself when you feel negative emotions
  • Impulse control — really a description of how people react to stray impulses
  • Performance control — the ability to complete a task with the appropriate mix of speed, accuracy, perseverance

In chapter one, the authors also suggest that willpower is like a muscle that gets fatigued after use. Apparently we use the same supply of willpower for all tasks: making decisions, writing a term paper, resisting chocolate chip cookies, waking up on time… Author Roy Baumeister coined a term for willpower fatigue, called “ego depletion.” It draws upon Freud’s energy model of the self, the idea that the self is comprised of various, competing energies that must be productively channeled. University of Toronto researchers Michael Inzlicht and Jennifer Gutsell found that ego depletion manifests as slower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, and also in more extreme emotions — so next time your plagued by violent mood swings, ask yourself how much self-discipline you’ve had to exercise recently.

An amusing study conducted by two Australian psychologists proved the forcefulness of the ego depletion concept. In the study, they administered self-control tests to students at several points throughout the semester. During exams, the students smoked more, doubled their caffeine intake, spent money more impulsively, and generally took on a host of bad habits. Turns out that stress erodes willpower, which explains the students’ poor behavior.

In another study, scientists put hungry subjects in a room with warm chocolate chip cookies, radishes, and chocolate candy. Some were told to eat the cookies and the candy; a separate group was told to eat the radishes. Then they were instructed to work on insoluble puzzles. Those who ate the sweets worked on the puzzles for an average of 20 minutes, whereas the radish-eating participants only persevered for about eight minutes. Their willpower had presumably been depleted by the effort of resisting the cookies. To summarize,

“You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it [and] you use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.”

What’s the take away? Focus on accomplishing, changing, or mastering one thing at a time. And be patient with yourself, whatever the challenge 🙂

A Brief History of Willpower

Sarah Robinson An Affair with Chocolate CC BY 2.0I find myself invoking the old D.A.R.E. mantra, “Just say no!” when face-to-face with a bag of Peanut M&Ms or a gooey brownie or say, an entire jar of Nutella. I have a serious weakness for chocolate, and “just say[ing] no” ain’t that easy. I was at my wit’s end a few weeks ago, bemoaning my lack of self-control, when I happened upon The New York Times bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. I can’t say I bought it entirely devoid of the hope that it would help me unlock my potential for resisting temptation, but it’s also just an interesting read that unpacks a rather elusive concept. Here’s a summary of what I learned in the introduction:

According to psychologists, two qualities determine success and well-being in life: intelligence and self-control. The latter is a malleable quality — like a muscle, it “can…be strengthened over the long term through exercise,” according to Baumeister. When Baumeister and his colleagues conducted a study of over 200 Germans wearing beepers that randomly sounded, requiring the participants to report on the status of their desires, they concluded that “people spend at least a fifth of their waking hours resisting desires,” that “desire [is] the norm, not the exception.” (The desire to eat topped the list, a temptation the participants claimed to be only mediocre at resisting, as compared to the desire to sleep, have sex, or spend money, which made me feel a little better about the moments when I’ve been caught licking spoonfuls of Nutella out of the jar…) Point being, exercising willpower is tough. The authors suggest that it’s gotten tougher throughout history, citing a rigid social hierarchy, a reduced set of temptations, and the enforcing powers of the Catholic church and the threat of public disgrace as reasons why the notion of willpower didn’t exist during the Middle Ages.

The term came about during the Victorian Age, when the decline of religion and the societal changes associated with the Industrial Revolution, such as urbanization, led people to fret about the upholding of moral standards. “They began using the term willpower,” according to Baumeister and Tierney, “because of the folk notion that some kind of force was involved — some inner equivalent to the steam powering the Industrial Revolution.” The popularity of the willpower concept declined in the twentieth century, not least because the mindset of duty and self-sacrifice led to mass deaths during World War I, as well as the Nazi party’s exploitation of such values as obedience and self-denial, even titling propaganda films “The Triumph of the Will.”

Following World War II, the advertising industry in the newly booming economy encouraged Americans to strive for popularity and prosperity, with books like How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking replacing Self-Help and The Power of the Will. Self-help authors espoused the “feel-good philosophy” of achieving success through self-confidence, the “believe it, achieve it” mentality. It seems that with this greater emphasis on positivity, the country’s collective willpower declined somewhat. For example, in The Quest for Identity, psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis wrote that as a result of declining self-discipline, his clients had an easier time getting in touch with their neurotic tendencies (less “character armor” to break down) but they encountered more difficulty in making changes to their lives. Another reason for “the decline of the will” has to do with the prevailing belief among psychologists and social scientists that the conscious mind is ever subservient to the subconscious, that free will is essentially a fallacy. Even author Roy Baumeister was more focused on fostering self-esteem than self-control when he started his career in the 1970s, riding the wave of personal empowerment philosophy, with books like I’m OK — You’re OK and Awaken the Giant Within. 

The resurgence of self-control as an influential force in human life didn’t come from new theories or hypothesizes, but rather materialized as scientists were testing for other phenomenon. A man named Walter Mischel led a study in the 1960s testing how children resisted immediate gratification, in which children were given a marshmallow that they could eat at any time. If they waited to eat it until the experimenter returned, they would also be allowed to eat a second marshmallow. Most of the children who held out succeeded in delaying gratification by distracting themselves, an interesting finding in itself. Years later, Mischel tracked down the children from the experiment, discovering that the four-year-olds who resisted eating the first marshmallow possessed a host of positive traits connected to willpower as adults, from higher SAT scores to higher salaries to a lower body-mass index.

In Losing Control, Baumeister and his wife, Dianna Tice took stock of the benefits of self-control, and prompted a new wave of experiments on the topic. Self-control was found to be the best predictor of a student’s grade-point average, over IQ and SAT scores. It was also associated with higher levels of empathy, lower rates of mental illness, healthier relationships at home and at work, and better finances, among other things. Meanwhile, anthropologists and neuroscientists studied the evolutionary causes of willpower, concluding that humans developed larger brains along with the capability of self-control because of our social nature. The authors write, “Primates are social beings who have to control themselves in order to get along with the rest of the group… For animals to survive in such a group without getting beaten up, they must restrain their urge to eat immediately.”

The introduction ends by defining the elusive concept of “the will” as making conscious choices with a broader awareness of time, “treating the current situation as part of a general pattern.” I think that’s what I’m after re the spoonfuls of Nutella — “just saying no” enough so that giving in is the exception, not the rule, even if desire is a constant. In “Why Will Yourself to Read This?” the authors do promise some practical wisdom on that front, bolstered by social scientists’ understanding of what willpower is, how it works, and how it informs our understanding of the self. For anyone out there seeking greater productivity, better health, or just a sense of self-mastery, this book is worth a read. I’ll continue to post with more insights gleaned, but for now, more power to you.

Farewell Chicago

brunurb P1090489 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I have seven more nights to sleep in my Chicago bed. Seven more 5:30 am snoozes filled in by the sound of dump trucks reversing, ambulances speeding, cabbies honking, and heels clicking on pavement outside my bedroom window. Am I feeling nostalgic? Not so much, as a matter of fact. I’ve reached a point where the allure of the city, in all its gritty, gray, urban glory, has faded for me. I’m ready for a shorter commute. I’m ready for bigger patches of green grass, for big, old trees that aren’t plopped in the middle of a concrete sidewalk with a copper plate covering for protection. I’m ready for pizza that isn’t Chicago style pizza — and yes, that especially includes Imo’s, even if it does resemble “Velveeta on a cracker.” I’m ready for snow that melts, rather than transforming into a coal-black packed powder for weeks on end. I’m ready for longer springs, longer autumns, shorter, warmer winters.

Did I mention that I’m ready? At the same time, I’m already anticipating that moment when the absence of all that Chicago has to offer suddenly tugs at me, when suddenly I’m aware that I’ve given up a great deal and I can’t go back to it. I know it’s coming. So here’s a little list of Chi town places I’ll especially miss, hopefully with some appeal for both readers well-acquainted and completely unfamiliar with the windy city:

The Old Town School of Folk Music is one of my favorite places to see live music in Chicago. In addition to offering a wide range of classes in a wide range of instruments for both kids and adults, Old Town hosts so many great concerts. This March I saw Los San Patricios, a concert about Irish immigrants’ contributions to the Mexican-American war, jointly produced by the Sones de Mexico and the Irish Music School of Chicago and featuring a fusion of Mexican and Irish music and dance. Another favorite was a performance a few years ago by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, performing songs from their joint album, Kin.

Joseph Kranak Signature Room CC BY 2.0LSD, as in Lakeshore Drive, is such a gem. The glint of sun on the corner of skyscrapers. Wide swaths of lake, stretching toward the horizon. Belmont Harbor, with its promise of leisurely summer days spent out on the water. An open view of Buckingham Fountain, whose spray hits the sky just so, making a rainbow. Joggers and bikers cutting their path, making the city feel lived in, alive. Warm days when the beaches are loaded with people. Cool days when the sand is iced over, windswept into craggy piles. Gray, dry  days when the city is a blend of blue, silver, and white.

Andrew Seaman Davis Theater CC BY-ND 2.0The Davis Theater, located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, is almost 100 years old, with a definite old-timey feel, established by antique posters, retro vending equipment, and four theaters displaying high, smallish screens and dingy, threadbare seats that you can’t help but love. It’s a refreshing respite from the brightly lit, commercial complexes where movies are more frequently shown today. Perhaps it’s most admirable feature, though, is the name — speaking as one, it’s hard not to love a “Davis” 🙂

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.32.31 AMSpeaking of Davis’s, I will sorely miss Davis Street Fish Market, purporting on their website to be “Chicago’s #1 Seafood Destination.” I have a long history with this place. I recall eating there with my parents on a college visit to Northwestern, and celebrating my graduation there a few years later. These days my husband and I like to journey over to Evanston on a Friday night for some “Crescent City Cioppino,” replete with scallops, crawfish, clams, shrimp, mussels, tomato, and fennel, or maybe some Jambalaya. Well, we used to. I suppose I’ll need a new seafood spot in the Lou.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.58.32 AMI’m not a big shopper, but I have some great memories of sorting through Knee Deep Vintage‘s collection of dresses, t-shirts, bags, and shoes. Open since 2008, the shop is located on 18th Street, in Pilsen, on Chicago’s south side. I bought an army green dress with a gold print, 1950s-style, with a cinched waist, stiff collar and 3-quarter cuffed sleeves, and pleated flare skirt that I was intent on sporting for Halloween, Mad Men style, but it’s just been hanging in my closet for the last five years. I finally donated it the other day. Still, it was a rare find, and I’m glad I went knee deep for it.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 12.12.52 PMDak is a Korean barbecue joint near my house whose praises I also sung on the site Food Riot. A clean, spare, small space with blonde wooden tables, gray floors, and plentiful spools of paper towels, Dak is good for two versions of wings: one with a soy/garlic/ginger sauce, and a spicy red pepper version. Rice bowls are also on the menu, containing veggies, a fried egg, and a sweet/spicy red pepper sauce, but my favorite is their Bulgogi — thinly sliced steak lightly dredged in Korean barbecue sauce served alongside a sticky mound of white rice. They also make a mean eggroll and a tasty batch of sweet potato waffle fries that are hard to resist.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.06.01 PMSpeaking of neighborhood haunts, it’ll be hard to part with Devon Market. The Edgewater grocery store has fresh bread baked in store, a large produce section, a wide assortment of Mexican style meats, international pantry items, and is such a bargain compared to the bigger chains.

Patrick Emerson Follow Harold Washington Library Patrick Emerson CC BY-ND 2.0How I’ll miss the Harold Washington Library, and the entire Chicago Public Library system. The sheer size and vibrancy of Chicago’s libraries, housed in so many beautiful and historic locations, is something to be savored. (I think Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square is a close second for me.) And for a bit of trivia, did you know that the city’s public library system was set into motion after the Great Chicago Fire, when 8,000 books were donated from England? Now you do 🙂

Rachel 365/28 Lao Sze Chuan CC BY-NC 2.0

Lao Sze Chuan is, hands down, my favorite place to eat Chinese food in the city. They have a delectable eggplant pork dish that’s soft and buttery and decadent, a mayonnaise shrimp item that sounds disgusting but is strangely addictive, delicious crispy beef dishes, irresistible steamed dumplings, and warm pots of fresh tea. That said, their menu is extensive, and in all my times eating there, I’ve only scraped the tip of the iceberg. Don’t take my word for it — this place has received numerous awards from the city’s culinary community. It’s a fairly widespread favorite.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.11.39 PMAnd… last, but certainly not least, I will miss Links Hall, a performance space for independent artists — a place to take risks, generate new work, and expose Chicago audiences to new horizons. With all its artistic offerings, I doubt Saint Louis has a place quite like it. Aw shucks.

So there you go. As I prepare to journey southward, I remember that Chicago is a loaded, special place, full of places and people and meals to be missed. What’s your favorite Chicago gem??

 

 

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