Posted by: godandchocolate | February 10, 2010

The Cheeto Principle: Checking Out Food Labels

For a few different health reasons we’ve started to take positive steps towards changing how and what we eat, and trying to opt for what the pros call “nutrient-dense” foods. You know, the kind of food God gave us: growing on trees, bushes, and in the ground; grazing in the fields; swimming in the seas.

I haven’t posted yet about some of the changes to the way we eat that we are trying to make. I say “trying” because, well, it’s easier said than done: there is a ton of information out there, a lot of it contradictory, and we just don’t have the financial resources to start spending boatloads of money on grass-fed beef and free range eggs and organic produce and good milk. (Plus, it’s not even clear to me what the best course of action is for each of these groups, so I’m doing research online and in grocery stores and farmer’s markets to see what is healthy and doable for us.)

So basically, I can’t yet articulate a full-fledged nutritional philosophy for you. My husband and I have started with what we call “The Cheeto Principle”: if none of the substances composing a so-called food bear any resemblance to something that occurs in nature or a food that has been traditionally eaten by people, it’s not worth eating. A corn puff fried in vegetable oil and coated with a powdered cheese product is not food; don’t eat it.

Getting started living by the Cheeto Principle (or, if you will, more of a “real food” lifestyle–though I clearly don’t qualify for that moniker just yet!) required the itty-bitty baby steps of looking at the ingredients lists of foods we eat and using that information to make informed judgments about what is OK to eat (for now, at least) and what we should avoid.

A lot of ‘real foodies’ suggest going through the pantry and fridge and tossing, willy-nilly, the foods with unpronounceable ingredients and other sketchy stuff like high fructose corn syrup and soy products. Some even say to ditch anything with more than FIVE ingredients listed on the label. As convinced as I may be that these highly-processed industrial food products are not good for me, I can’t bring myself to just pitch groceries. There are starving children in India, and I’m going to throw away that box of cake mix or rice-a-roni out of fear of hydrolyzed whatchamacallit and ___ corn ___? I don’t think so.

So my method has been a bit different. Criticize it if you will, but here’s what I’ve been doing for a few months:

1. Staying away from the grocery store aisles. Produce, meat, milk, bread, butter–all of these things are found on the outside walls of the grocery story. The processed crap is all in the middle, tempting you with the tunnels of carbs. I just avoid the temptation, unless I have an express reason to be in the aisle (like walnuts, or canned tomatoes, or spices, or yeast). If I do have something that is packaged that I still eat, I just pay more attention to labels and try to buy what seems better, whether or not it’s called ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ or whatever other marketing ploys they’re using these days.

2. Attacking my pantry with a red sharpie. Yup. Like I said, I don’t want to throw away the food, but I do want to be mindful about what we’re eating. So I went through and put a line through all of the weird ingredients in the pre-packaged foods we have in our pantry and fridge. Based on my totally non-scientific gut reaction to the ingredients, I then marked the package with ‘X,’ ‘OK,’ or ‘?’.

The X group: Hungry Jack syrup, Ken's salad dressing, Betty Crocker frosting and cake mix, Ritz crackers, Nature's Way Rice-a-Roni (Italian Cheese & Herb flavor), International Delight non-dairy creamer, Maull's BBQ sauce.

Notice all the red lines through the ingredients lists. They were just a little too funky. And all of these foods are really just ‘convenience’ foods that we don’t need to be eating and for which healthier alternatives exist. Looking at this picture, I also know that there are a lot of things not pictured that I just automatically don’t buy or try not to use as frequently (such as canned/boxed broth, boxed macaroni and cheese, canned soups, shortening, white bread…).
In that bottle of Hungry Jack syrup, the first ingredient is (well, not surprisingly) SYRUP (SUGAR SYRUP AND HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP). We can just as easily use real maple syrup, and with the infrequency with which we eat pancakes or waffles, it shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. The salad dressing tastes funky and has a few bizarre things in it that probably contribute to the odd taste, and there are plenty of easy, simple salad dressing recipes out there that I’m starting to try. Homemade balsamic vinaigrette is yummy! I’ve tried my hand at cakes and frostings made from scratch, and ditching the mixes will save money and force me to use that cake flour I’ve bought. I’m sure there’s a perfectly suitable rice-a-roni substitute out there (right? there must be!), and the International Delight (which is basically flavored OIL…blah!) just allows me to drink the coffee that I know I shouldn’t. BBQ sauce…well…I’ll start a search for high fructose corn syrup-free BBQ sauce when our grill isn’t covered in snow.
: Krusteaz banana nut muffin mix, Nature Valley granola bars, Barilla pasta, store brand quick oats, Martha White corn muffin mix.”]These guys range from totally fine (the only ingredients in the quick oats are “whole rolled oats”), to acceptable for us (I make my own pasta, but don’t usually have the time), to maybe-I-should-reconsider-but-I’ll-take-my-sweet-time (the baking mixes and granola bars). Everyone is going to have their own stuff in this range, and that’s fine. I mean, you can’t just wake up one day and never buy another yummy, sugary, convenience food. It takes time. So here I am, taking my time. The baking mixes here really aren’t necessary–I’m sure I can easily make corn muffins, but I’m just used to the handy bag or box in the pantry that I can whip together as an afterthought when we’re having chili or tacos. And the Krusteaz mix…well, that’s the first time I’d ever bought it, and the muffin on the front enticed me (along w/ the coupon-sale combo, ever enticing for a frugal shopper!). I figure that the granola bars are still better than cookies–homemade or storebought–and my husband likes to eat them for lunch. So they are here for now.

The ? group: ketchup, Hershey's syrup, Nature's Way Rice-a-Roni parmesan and romano cheese flavor, Skippy peanut butter, Smuckers grape jelly.

Now these guys are giving me even more trouble than that X group. They are problematic because (a) they have funky ingredients that I KNOW we shouldn’t eat, but (b) their use is deeply ingrained in our diets. I mean, who can eat a burger without ketchup? What would my childhood have been like without PB and jelly or chocolate milk? These are the hard questions of life, my friends. These are the ones for which I’m going to really be searching for an alternative and stretching myself to try something new (like natural peanut butter, sans that sketchy hydrogenated oil).

3. I will use this information in future meals and shopping trips. I won’t buy any of the red-X stuff, and I’ll look for alternatives to the OK and ? stuff in the form of recipes and other products. For example, if I make a box of rice-a-roni, the rest of the dinner will be composed of a salad, roasted veggies, and meat. If I use a cake mix, I’ll be darn well aware of all the bizarre things in it–more incentive to use that cake flour I’ve got sitting in the cupboard.
Fad diets always fail, so do diets where you change up a bunch of things all at once. So baby steps are where it’s at for lasting nutritional change…and this is where I’m starting. I’ve already come a long way, and only have this relative handful of sticking points (well, there are a few other things that aren’t pictured…).
We’ve never bought Cheetos–I’m sure we can get to the point where we no longer buy cake mix, or -gulp- conventional peanut butter!
Any advice for baby steps to a healthier, more natural, nutritionally-dense diet? Am I on the right track?
{This post is part of Real Food Wednesday, hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop. Go check out Kelly’s awesome blog, which I’ve been avidly reading as I start to make nutritionally wise changes for our family. Oh, and be sure to visit the other blogs featured on this Real Food Wednesday!}
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Posted by: godandchocolate | February 9, 2010

The Virtue of Ordinary Life

Wow, I need to get back to blogging…

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot, trying to pray as much, and reflecting on what I’ve learned in marriage and what I continue to learn from my friends in all walks of life. Seeing the humble faith and quiet witness of so many of you has made me realize so many things, and taught me so much about vocation. Below are a few of those reflections.

I wrote an alumni column that was printed in the latest edition of the Irish Rover. Reprinted here for your reading pleasure…

The Virtue of Ordinary Life

Students of Notre Dame, we are told, are high achievers. They work hard, and rumor has it, they play hard too. They conduct independent, groundbreaking research across all fields. They excel in rigorous classes and gain entrance to prestigious graduate and professional schools. On Facebook, they proclaim “I’m kind of a big deal…” and at Commencement exercises they congratulate themselves, wishing one another the best as they move on, of course, to bigger and better things.

Graduates of Notre Dame, we are told, are Heisman Trophy winners, Olympians, and professional athletes and coaches. They are governors, congressmen, ambassadors and cabinet members who shape American and international politics. They are writers and actors and movie makers. They are renowned academics, Nobel laureates, and researchers whose findings change the world and how we live in it. They are business executives and co-owners of professional athletic teams. They are noteworthy writers, actors, musicians, journalists, and TV personalities.

But other graduates of Notre Dame, shaped as they were by the Notre Dame educational experience, go on to simpler things. They are teachers and volunteers and housewives. They are accountants, IT professionals, and engineers. They are priests and seminarians, consecrated religious sisters and brothers. They commute long distances to a job that is far from their dream, perhaps to one for which they are over-educated and underpaid. They work in cubicles, file TPS reports, pay their taxes and raise their children. They are good parents and hard workers, but their accomplishments are not known by all and history does not record their significant deeds.

It is all too easy to look at these two groups of individuals and label one “success stories” and the other “not so much”. It is all too easy to say of this second group that they might in some way be “wasting their degrees”. It is all too easy, especially as seniors edge towards graduation, to think that upon leaving Notre Dame they will take the world by storm, change it, and make it better, thus proving to everyone else their own worth as well as the real world cash value of a degree from Our Lady’s University.

Any graduate of Notre Dame should be proud of their accomplishments. But does this admittedly caricatured attitude reveal more of a tendency to sinful pride than healthy self-respect? Might it betray a preference for prestige over life in the truth at one of America’s top academic research institutions (which, it so happens, is also Catholic)?

There are two ways one can view life in the “real world” outside of Notre Dame, particularly the world of the great recession of the 21st century. According to the first, reality is grim, harsh, and stifling. It prevents the full expression of each person’s extraordinarily unique gifts by forcing them to be less than they could be. In the real world, employees are squeezed into cubicles, genius is underappreciated, and everything stands in the way of personal self-discovery and fulfillment. According to the second, reality is an opportunity for each person to discover and to fulfill the purpose for their lives in each and every moment of each and every day. Reality is right now, this minute, as I discern my vocation, but do not determine it. In the real world, some are intended for greatness, though none seeks it; men and women pray and work, and work and pray, whether their workplace is McDonald’s or a monastery.

Our culture views life in the first way. Our Church views life in the second. Believe me when I say, from the other side, that the only way to survive is to live according to the second way, the little way, the way of ordinary life.

Instead, we all tend to measure ourselves by what we do, to try to make our lives clear “success stories” that stack up against the world’s (or Notre Dame’s) measuring stick. This tendency fits us; it lies in our hearts. It is pride, and ultimately, it always causes us to fall. Many seniors are filled with anxiety as they prepare for graduation not only because they worry about the next steps on their journey, but also because they wonder if others might judge their journey and find it lacking. I know that I was.

But this type of anxiety is misplaced. We all know in our heart of hearts that peer pressure and the judgments of others are by no means the way we can live our lives. We know that there is always going to be someone casting judgment on us and on our decisions. We know that it is just no use to worry about these things, but we are not always able to say why.

The truth is that pride blinds us to the truth that the vocation of all people is to follow God’s will, while the vocation of most people is to a quiet and simple life lived trusting in Love Himself. After all, the future is not in our hands, but in God’s. The true success stories, whatever their time and place, are always characterized by the fiat: “May it be done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). A life lived for one’s own gain and one’s own glory is always a failure.

The lesson here is not that students and alumni should be content to hide their light under a bushel basket. Instead, it is a reminder that their light is never their own, but is instead a reflection of Him who is the source of all light. We are not God’s gift to this earth, but rather everything and everyone, from the greatest to the least, are His gift to us.

The virtue of ordinary life is that it is filled with opportunities to do little things with great love, opportunities for giving of ourselves while expecting nothing in return. Every moment of every day can be a sacramental occasion—an instant in which our doing reflects God’s doing so closely that we become signs and instruments of His grace. Success in this life is not measured by worldly accolades, fame or fortune; it is measured by our openness to divine providence. If we are accustomed to only looking for divine providence at work in popular, memorable, or extravagant ways, we have prepared ourselves to miss those frequent moments in ordinary life when the extraordinary grace of God reaches in and transforms us.

This transformation is always happening, in the most ordinary moments and seasons of life. I have learned this because I have seen it with my own eyes in my life and in the lives of my friends. Grace reaches us, in the prayer whispered while stirring the simmering pot on the stove; in changing a diaper; in reading that article now instead of putting it off for later; in praying faithfully the liturgy of the hours; in gently dealing with an angry friend, or classmate, or customer; in openness to pregnancy at the beginning of a marriage; in doing honest work, even at a hated job. God teaches us and transforms us through these seemingly small things, each and every day. After all, if we fail at even the smallest acts of obedience, how can our lives ever be judged a success?

Posted by: godandchocolate | January 20, 2010

Food, Glorious Food!

This blog is based on the principle that God and chocolate is better than just God–that God and His creation makes for a deliciously beautiful life. So, where’s the chocolate? So far you might be getting the sense that I really think that God and chocolate is better than just chocolate.

Have no fear!

On the “chocolate” (FOOD!) side of things, I have plenty of good things in store. Another category here on G+C will include “Rachel’s Recipes”. I’m no chef or culinary expert, but I have tested (and perfected!) a recipe or two in my short homemaking career. I like to share home-cooked and home-baked goodness with family and friends. Periodically I will share some of my favorites–family recipes, things I’ve somehow devised myself, and (perhaps more often than anything else) my renditions of others’ delicious inventions. Check out my “Chocolate” links for my online inspirations!

It might take a little while to get to the chocolate, actually (how lame is that? I know…), but here’s what I have in the works in the realm of “chocolate”:

  • Experiments with other bloggers’ recipes: Starting off with the Pioneer Woman’s Chicken Salad and Pastor Ryan’s Pasta Bolognese Sauce.
  • Moist and delicious individual chocolate “lava” cakes–super easy!
  • My own take on classic beef chili: Man-tested, husband-approved. And there’s even a bit of chocolate in it!

What I am most excited about sharing are my ongoing experiments with home-baked bread. There is nothing–really, nothing!–on this earth so saliva-inducing as the aroma of baking bread. I mean, who doesn’t start drooling upon pulling into the parking lot of St. Louis Bread Co. [Panera]? That’s just me? Well then.

BREAD. Most people just assume that since it involves yeast and complicated things like rising and (typically) kneading, it’s impossible to master. But it’s not. I promise. I have a secret to share–bread is easy. And deliciously rewarding. Your tummy and periodic carb cravings (wait, that’s just me again?) will thank you…if you stick around to learn with me as I master making bread at home!

I baked this. It came out of my kitchen. It can come out of yours, too. I promise!

Posted by: godandchocolate | January 20, 2010

Learning about St. Teresa of Avila

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila - Gianlorenzo Bernini

Realizing that I know little to nothing about St. Teresa of Avila, apart from a few readily-available facts and a class or two discussing her understanding of prayer back at the alma mater, I’ve resolved to dive a little deeper.

In no particular order, here is a brainstorm of the questions I hope to answer and topics I plan to cover:

The Story of St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church: biography, and her significance for the Church

  • Teresa’s early life and vocation
  • The reform of the Carmelites and her relationship with St. John of the Cross
  • Her mystical theology and spiritual life

Reading the works of St. Teresa of Avila

Would anyone like to join me? We can walk together through the works of St. Teresa and learn a little (or a lot!) about the Christian life.

Posted by: godandchocolate | January 20, 2010

God, Chocolate, and the Incarnation

St. Teresa of Avila

“God and chocolate is better than just God.” What are we to make of this quote? Is it blasphemy? An amusing and irreverent truism? A deeply theological point? All of the above?

To be honest, I don’t know much about St. Teresa of Avila (but I do plan on learning!). Nor do I really remember where I ever heard this saying attributed to Teresa, the saying which has inspired this blog. (I can’t find any sources on the web that provide any more historical evidence than hearsay–can you?)

On the surface, it’s easy to side with the blasphemous and amusing truism camp when it comes to God and chocolate. “Nothing on earth is better than God,” the pious objector says. “God is heavenly, supernatural–far beyond creation in glory and power and goodness. Please don’t allow your tastebuds and cocoa cravings bring you to blasphemy!”

Allow me to explain. A Doctor of the Church said this, so don’t throw those anathemas at me just yet for repeating her wisdom!

Nothing on earth, apart from God, is better than “just God”. No created thing can be better than its Creator, nor can any of God’s creations stand apart from their Creator. That’s not what Teresa is saying.

The central truth here is this: the Creator and His “very good” creation, together, are better than the Creator alone. Our proof of this is, well, everything. God, eternally existing as He is, has no need of us. But apparently He does have great love for us. After all, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). God’s perfect plan of salvation involves creation–creation which can only have taken place out of gratuitous, overflowing love. Creation–all parts of creation, including the most delicious–are good, simply by virtue of being created by God. We know this because God says so: “God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (Gen 1:31).

What’s more, God comes to meet us through creation.

From our human perspective, this simple statement about my favorite food gets to the heart of the Christian life, and accesses the central mystery of orthodox Christian faith: the Incarnation. The eternal Word of God, through whom and in whose image we were created, entered into His creation by becoming human. I have heard it said by a good and holy priest that in the Incarnation we see that God has come from heaven and “kissed” the earth–but even this falls short of capturing what has taken place.

Marvel at the fact that by so ordinary a means as the body have immortality and incorruption been manifested to us, and that by death immortality has reached to all, and that by the Word becoming man, the universal providence has been known, and its giver and artificer the very Word of God.”

{St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word}

Marvel at it! The eternal, invisible, perfect, incomprehensible God has manifested Himself to us, not only through a burning bush and a voice from above, but as a man and with a human body. Put into Incarnational/Christological terms, then, “God made man is better than just God.” Obviously God thought so, or else He wouldn’t have been born in Bethlehem all those years ago. For every person, God becoming human is the decisive point around which our human existence turns. It is the source of our very life, our reconciliation with the Father, our re-creation in the image of God, our clear way to the Father. Again, from Athanasius:

The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.

{St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word}

The Incarnation has bridged the once incommensurable gap between man and God, natural and supernatural, ordinary and extraordinary. The world we can see is not hiding the more important, invisible things from us, but is the medium through which they are revealed to us.

Even chocolate, that delicious gift from above (okay, okay, from the cacao bean), can reveal the beauty and goodness of God. And for me, at least, it reveals His love.

More:

Posted by: godandchocolate | January 18, 2010

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