Author Archives: thelostpenguin

About thelostpenguin

Writer. Sound Designer. Researcher. Film Maker. Photographer. Puzzling my way through my 30s and across the world in search of a way to combine my varied interests, from Astro-physics to Archeology to Animation to Architecture. A believer that ideological fundamentalism (whether political or religious) is the second biggest source of the world's problems. The first being greed. This blog serves as an online record of my writing.

Window Box Gardening

This year has seen a great deal of change, as I moved into my own place, which gave me both more and less space to grow my herbs and vegetables. I’m now in a first floor flat with no actual garden so instead of my small container garden I now have a collection of window boxes to work with, along with some ikea hanging baskets in my kitchen.

I wasn’t sure if my herbs would survive their summary removal from a container on the patio into a window box, so I gave them a few weeks sitting in my living room to settle before I put them back outside again. Apparently they liked my living room a bit too much as within a month of being outside my kitchen window they were universally looking like the saddest herbs on the planet.

It’s not been a good year for herbs in general chez moi. All the herbs I’d bought for my kitchen planters have died a death. In fact the only thing I’ve planted in my hanging kitchen planter that hasn’t keeled over is an Aloe Vera plant. Which nearly keeled over in the other direction as I’ve had to turn the planter round so that its leaning toward the sunshine doesn’t tip the whole thing out on the floor!

One thing that has been an unmitigated success is my bay tree. Having been a small but resilient little container tree on the patio for the last couple of years, when I moved somewhere without a garden I planned to return it to my parents care. (Their own Bay Tree that mine is an offshoot from, had died a death the previous year.) It was a shame, my friend M noted while helping me move, it looked good in my living room. After some consultation with green-fingered friends we concluded that it should be fine as long as it got plenty of light, so I found it a sunny spot, watered it regularly and hoped for the best. Reader, it thrived. It’s got at least a foot taller, I had to re-pot it into a bigger tub and it’s never looked healthier.

This summer I tried out window box gardening for the first time. Between spring arriving late and being generally busy with the move I didn’t actually get any seeds in the soil until June. I planted a row each of carrots and spring onions in one box and a row each of radishes and pak choi in the other. I didn’t have high hopes for them but I reckoned it as better to try then just look sadly at those empty window boxes all summer. Yet to my surprise, the sunshine and showers that marked June meant that my radishes and pak choi burst into enthusiastic life to the extent of needing thinned out. My carrots looked pathetic and my spring onions never broke the surface – I suspect bird interference – but I began to have hopes about salad.

However, come July we had a heat-wave, and I returned from a week away for work to find that my pak choi and radishes had both shot beyond rescue, so all I got from that box were some rather pretty yellow and pink-purple flowers. After last year’s spinach disappointment, I suspect salad leaves are not going to be my thing.

However, to my surprise, the carrots rallied. I’d decided to grow a miniature variety and miniature they certainly were. But I did at least get enough carrots to do something with. I was able to get enough to eat boiled with dinner one night, and during my sushi experiments baby carrots proved to be the perfect size to quarter and use as batons. Also they may have been tiny, but they packed a disproportionate punch of taste. I’ve never eaten carrots with such flavour so despite their unimpressive showing, I’ll definitely be giving them a second try next year.

I have had one last success in my window box gardening. I noticed the other day that my chive plant – previously thought dead – was showing some fresh green shoots among the dead husks. So I’ve carefully cleared away the dead stems and other debris and it looks that I might yet have a chive plant – and who knows I’ve seen that mint plant come back from worse in previous years…

Categories: growing my own, nablopomo, new skills | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Noodle Adventures

Honestly, if you’d told me at the start of last year, that doing the 52 ingredients challenge would leave me with strong opinions about noodles, I would have laughed at you. But then noodles turned out to be a really easy food type to try lots of different varieties of throughout the challenge. I eat a fairly large amount of noodles in general life, so it was easy enough to just grab a different variety each time I needed more noodles.

Actually, at this point I should clarify that when I talk about noodles, I mean it in the UK sense, the kind of things you serve with stir-fry and so many varieties of East Asian food. Despite their structural similarities, I’m not talking about pasta.

Anyway, prior to doing this challenge I mostly ate two kinds of noodles, egg noodles and Udon noodles. Actually to be entirely honest, mostly I ate either those ramen noodle packets adulterated with a bunch of vegetables and either tofu or quorn, or I stuck those ‘straight-to-wok’ Udon noodle packets into my stir-fry. Either way I was pretty set in my noodle eating ways, and the extent of my noodle opinions was that I didn’t like vermicelli rice noodles. (Soggy and flavourless, they really need something as strongly flavoured as Singapore noodles to give them any taste.) So really my noodle opinions boiled down to preferring thick noodles over thin noodles.

But having tried a whole variety of noodles over the course of this challenge I now have noodle opinions. And what else do you do when you’ve got a food blog and some food opinions that few people you know in real life will care about? Well, naturally you blog about it!

Soba Noodles

I wrote about these when I tried them last summer. Substantial enough that they don’t fall apart when you’re making ramen, and as buckwheat noodles I find that they’re as wheat-y a noodle as I’m ever likely to want. Despite being fairly skinny noodles they retain decent structural integrity making them ideal for making noodles soups, so they’ve become my go-to noodles for when I want to make Ramen dishes from scratch rather than from a packet. My new favourite every day noodles.

Whole-wheat noodles

These are essentially a whole wheat version of the kind of widely available egg noodles that are the default in most UK supermarkets – coming in neat little portion-sized nests. After the success of my adventures with buckwheat noodles with Soba, I thought these would be an easier to portion version with a similar taste. I was wrong. I don’t actively dislike them, but they are fundamentally, disappointing noodles. I was particularly disappointed because I really enjoy whole-wheat pasta so I had high hopes, but they were dashed. My strongest feeling when putting out the empty packet was one of relief.

Taiwanese Sliced Noodles

These are great. After my adventures with whole-wheat noodles I had to be careful not to overcook them, but even then they were comparatively a delight. The ones I had came in ‘nests’ though not the small neat burls of egg noodles I’m used to, instead taking the form of large ungainly slices. They’re awkward shapes that are hard to store and always give me more noodles than I could sensibly require, but they are most definitely worth it. They have that comforting gluten-y texture (and mouth-feel) that I love about Udon noodles, along with their ribbon shape giving the most unadventurous stir fry a pleasingly different aspect. Definitely the kind of noodles that I could happily eat a bowl of with just some sauce.

Udon Noodles

I’d never previously cooked Udon noodles from scratch. They’re my noodle of choice when I go out for Japanese food and as aforementioned I’m partial to their ‘straight-to-wok’ incarnation, despite their slightly slippery texture. Given my longstanding fondness for them, I figured I should actually have a bash at cooking them myself in the more traditional fashion. I must confess myself a little disappointed in dried Udon noodles, while they were definitely chunkier than either soba or standard egg noodles, they never quite plumped up to the thickness I’m accustomed to from Udon noodles. I had to cook them for at least twice the length of time suggested by the packet as prior to that they hadn’t plumped up at all. I wondered if perhaps I’d just bought a sub-par brand – they were after all Tesco Udon noodles – but the internet tells me that dried Udon are widely considered to be sub-par as a rule. They weren’t terrible noodles, they just weren’t what I was after, so I think I’ll be sticking with the straight-to-wok or ‘for soup’ varieties as they do a much better job of impersonating the kind of noodles I’d be led to expect from the fresh variety.

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No Fried Food Review

Having made a blog post about starting the ‘no fried food’ challenge, it seems churlish not to post a review post about how it went. Whether it was a product of the time of year, or simply just that my shifts were less antisocial this time round but it was definitely an easier challenge to keep to this time.

While I didn’t actually make either chilli or curry during the month, the fact that I knew that I could if I needed to made it somehow much easier to keep to the challenge. I felt less fenced in by the challenge, in fact it felt more like a fun challenge and less like every joy being cut off whichever way I looked!

The weather being somewhat more Autumnal I made a fair amount of soup during the course of the challenge, which always helps with the snacking, as I’m considerably less likely to feel the urge to snack after a filling bowl of soup. The oven was definitely my friend this challenge as I cooked a variety of things under the grill or in the oven instead of making them on the stovetop.

For the first half of the challenge month I don’t feel that it really helped my workplace snacking as instead of eating crisps I instead ate chocolate even when that really wasn’t what I wanted. (I’m much more of a savoury snacking person.) However as the month wore on I got better at bringing my own healthier snacks, finding that snacks I picked out myself in advance were eminently more tempting than those chosen out of peckish apathy from the vending machine.

That’s actually been much easier to keep up into this month as tangerines are in season and they are the perfect snack fruit. (Few greater joys when out in the field at work, cold, tired and hungry, to find a tangerine in your coat pocket like a present from your past self.) I’ve certainly got better at hiding cereal bars and packets of dried fruit or unsalted nuts in my work bag to be found just when I need them most. Pistachio nuts in particular need no salting or sweetening to feel like an indulgent treat.

Mostly, I distracted myself with other challenges. I ate a fair amount of Japanese food over the course of the challenge as I worked my way through a sushi recipe book, learning to roll sushi with varying success. Having something new and exciting to focus on distracted me from fixating on the things I couldn’t have which I suppose is fundamentally what you want from one of these challenges, not to close yourself off, but rather to open yourself up to new things and in the process reduce your reliance on old – lazy – staples.

And while no chips were as delicious as the ones I ate in the pub the day after the challenge finished, I must admit that the thing I missed the most during the course of the challenge was an omelette. Preferably with lots of cheese, some bell pepper and perhaps a spring onion. A small pleasure, but a much missed one.

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Baked Comfort

Over the last few months I’ve been getting more adventurous with my oven usage. After something of a false start when I first moved in where it turned out the thermostat wire had melted through, I’ve been slowly getting the hang of my new oven. The rule of thumb appears to be, 10-20˚C lower than the recipe/packet suggests and 5-10 minutes less cooking time (180˚C on the middle shelf seems to be sweet spot of the oven) and you’ll be just dandy.

To my great delight – and relief! – unlike my last place’s oven, this one actually bakes cakes and buns properly, no more half-cooked blueberry muffins for me! They don’t weld themselves to the paper cases anymore either! I’ve now successfully made two different kinds of muffins (rhubarb ones and apple and cinnamon varieties) in the oven so I feel more able to be more adventurous with my baking again. I didn’t realise how much frustration and uncertainty about whether they’d come out okay had curtailed my baking.

Apple cinnamon muffins

The somewhat temperamental nature of the previous ovens meant I really only made pasta bakes and pies in it – though an honourable mention needs to be made for the delightful discovery of baked eggs. It’s been rather fun experimenting with roasted vegetables – I may never again eat sweet potatoes any other way – as it’s opened up a whole bunch of recipes that I previously avoided as they started with ‘first roast the vegetables’ and it was too much of a faff. It really does improve the flavour of a surprising number of vegetables.

I’ve also successfully made bread in the oven now – even if only from packet mix so far – something I never risked attempting in either of the ovens at my old place. Before I moved to Inverness I used to bake bread, not all the time, but at least on a regular basis. I’d got pretty good at making soda bread, and it became a ritual to make it every time I made pea and mint soup, something I now only really do when I’m home visiting my parents for Xmas. I’d forgotten in the interim, how easy and satisfying I find making – most, ciabatta never comes out right for me – bread until I had the dough under my fists pummelling it gently into submission. There’s a special kind of joy in going to check on my proving dough and finding it successfully doubled in size. In the way my whole flat smelled of warm bread for a good 24 hours afterwards, and the repeated pleasure I got every time I opened the breadbox to be greeted by the scent. The way the loaf was exactly the right size for me to have eaten it all before it went off, and the satisfaction of making sandwiches for lunch with it, the added pleasure of the casual ‘that looks nice bread’ comments from colleagues to which I could proudly respond ‘thanks, I made it myself’. There are few more comforting scents than fresh bread you made yourself, I find. An olfactory hug if you will.
Cheese and tomato bread!Cheese and tomato bread sliced!

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Missing Sushi

One of the things I miss most after moving to the Highlands, is Japanese food. I had been thoroughly spoiled in the Central Belt always being under an hour away from decent Japanese food.

One of my friends likes to entertain her work colleagues when we’re meeting up for sushi dates, telling them that she’s going for sushi with the friend that introduced her to sushi – and that said friend does not eat fish. Which is funny and also true. I don’t eat fish.

The first time I ate sushi, it was at Yo Sushi on Oxford Street and the friends I went with encouraged me to eat the veggie options and work up to the raw fish. I ate and loved the veggie options and chickened out of the raw fish, but I was determined so I went again when I was back in Glasgow, gave my friend the same advice and savoured all the veggie options while she fell head over heels for the raw fish element. Somewhere along the way I became a vegetarian and she was diagnosed with coeliac disease and sushi became our go to dinner choice because it easily accommodated both our dietary requirements.


I love and miss eating sushi on the regular – the M&S veggie sushi option is better than nothing but all too often a disappointment – and then I realised that I could just, learn to make it myself! I could get the ingredients and the kit fairly easily, learn to roll sushi – I got a book from the library and where that failed youtube came to my rescue – and then make myself cute little bento boxes of sushi for lunch. (Tasty and Instagrammable!)

I started out with sushi balls which are apparently the easiest to make, and while the first few fell apart a bit when eaten, I got the hang of compressing them properly and the later ones in the batch could be safely dipped in soy sauce without collapsing.

My second attempt was in making sushi rolls of the conical variety which seemed a manageable step up in complexity. However this was stymied by the fact that I’d accidentally picked up nori strips rather than sheets so they were too narrow for my purpose. And honestly for most practical purposes as far as I can tell, as they’re about the width you want a maki to be but not long enough to actually hold one together. Perhaps cut into even thinner strips to hold pressed sushi and it’s topping together? I’m not sure you could even make the little sushi boats – whose proper name I’ve forgotten – with them. So the experiment went on hold until I could get hold of some nori sheets.

Once I’d acquired more sensibly sized nori sheets I cooked up another batch of rice – much better consistency this time, and I suspect using actual sushi seasoning rather than making my own from the recipe book helped – and took another run at it. My sushi cones were less than successful, but after some trial and error with the sushi mat I think I’m beginning to get the hang of rolling maki – I have a tendency to over load my nori with rice and not leave room for the filling. But with practice I’m definitely getting better at both general rice handling and also at properly portioning out my rice. My rolls are still chunkier than I’d like but I can now make futomaki that I wouldn’t be ashamed to take to work in my lunchbox even if I’m not quite ready to serve them to anyone else yet!

I may however, need to invest in an actual sushi knife, either that or a whetstone, as apparently I don’t own a single knife sharp enough to be able to cut sushi rolls in an easy or neat fashion!


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Fried Nothing

This month I’m taking another run at the ‘eat no fried food for a month’ challenge. Last time I tried it, the challenge proved to be more of a nuisance than anything else, so this time round I did some prep work before hand. I borrowed a couple of recipe books from the library, picked out a selection of recipes that didn’t require frying and did a food shop accordingly. Thank goodness my oven is now back in working order because I predict that it’ll be in fairly heavy rotation this month, certainly if this first week is anything to go by.

It’s been going pretty well so far, though I’ve got a decided craving for crisps right now, I keep having to remind myself not to take advantage of passing special offers on snacks! After the frustrations of my last attempt, I decided that I would draw certain limits, where things had to be actively fried to count. So I wouldn’t have to cut out everything that started with sautéing some mushrooms or softening an onion, or for that matter anything involving toasting spices or dry frying nuts. Otherwise I’d have been off the wagon on the second day having carefully roasted my aubergines (a vegetable that I’d really like to re-habilitate into my diet), found myself softening some onions and toasting some spices for the rest of the dish and gently banging my head off a wall. The whole point is to avoid deep fried things, at home I’m trying to cut out actively fried things, no omelettes or stir-fries, nothing battered or bread-crumbed, but while I’ll be trying to avoid curries and chilli, if a pot of chilli or daal is what needs to happen to avoid wasting food, I’m not going to count it against myself.

I predict a lot of roasted veg in my imminent future, perhaps a pot of soup!

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Cooking in New Kitchens

Several years ago, when I’d first moved back to Inverness, I made a post about the ‘joys’ of cooking in unfamiliar kitchens, or least kitchens that aren’t your own. In it I looked forward, longingly, to the day when I’d have my own kitchen, that I didn’t have to share, that I could arrange to my own preference. Having moved house last month, I finally have one! Of course, this means a whole new kitchen – and associated appliances – to get the hang of, but at least they’re mine, I can set them up the way I like, and change things round to suit me without consulting anyone else!

Probably the most important development is having a full-sized fridge/freezer to work with, instead of a little fridge with an icebox. I can bulk cook properly without condemning myself to eating the same thing for a week! Admittedly, between adventures in getting the settings right on both the fridge temperature and the central heating I have accidentally frozen a few things that really shouldn’t have been, but apple juice slushies are actually very refreshing when you’ve been painting all afternoon! It’s a work in progress, but we’re getting there. It has also been quite handy for stopping me getting over-enthusiastic in filling up my fridge, as if I can’t use it up in a reasonable time-scale chances are I’ll come back to find it frozen solid!

Kitchen herb garden

Despite some teething issues, I am really enjoying cooking in my new kitchen. It’s small but perfectly formed and I like how it’s set out. (I’d prefer if the fridge/freezer wasn’t behind the door but I’m not sure where else it could reasonably go.) It’s a space I enjoy being in, which in turn means that I’m more inclined to spend longer and be more adventurous in my cooking. (I whipped up a little batch of hummus after dinner last night, and a smoothie this morning and just having my blender easily at hand makes such a difference.) I’m putting together a little herb garden for it, both a window box for my kitchen window and an indoor hanging herb garden that lives in the corner. There’s just something about having everything on hand that makes me both more adventurous and take more care with my cooking and presentation. Yesterday I was unpacking and reorganising cupboards to accommodate another box of kitchen stuff and discovered a pile of empty storage jars, so now a bunch of things that were in packets that might have fallen down the back of cupboards or got tucked behind something else are now in regular circulation and all my fun little last minute add-ons – like pine-nuts, cashews and flaked almonds – are sitting out obvious where I’ll see them and use them up, while also looking all decorative and aesthetically pleasing in their cute little storage jars.

It’s just so nice knowing where everything is and having it on hand when I need it.

Now…if I could just figure out how to work the oven…

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Old Friends, New Challenges

It’s January, so time to come up with a new challenge to write about here on the blog. Preferably something a bit less ambitious than last year’s challenge of cooking a new ingredient a week for a year.

The problem with trying out these kind of challenges is that they pre-suppose a certain amount of stability, even staleness, in the lives of the participants. They’re meant to shake things up and challenge the participants. However, last year saw my life get thoroughly shaken up – in a good way! – as I changed jobs and with it, my lifestyle completely changed. From March onwards, most weeks I was just pleased if I managed to cook something reasonably nutritious never mind trying anything new or exciting. All things considered, I’m amazed that I actually managed to try 17 new things, no matter that I got nowhere near my target of 52, just getting near to two new things a month feels like an achievement.

Instead, this year I want to cook with two new ingredients each month and try one new recipe a month, as I gained a couple of new recipe books that have been sitting forlornly unloved on my shelf. I’ve even sort of succeeded on the cook a new recipe front already this month! I made tomato soup from an amalgamation of two different recipes this afternoon! I’m once again suffering from the need to cull my store cupboards of excess of cupboard staples so this month I’m trying to do as much bulk cooking from things I already had in the cupboards. So far this month I’ve managed a nice Cauliflower Daal, quesadillas and the aforementioned Tomato Soup. If this last year has proved anything, it’s that if I’m to eat properly and not waste food in this new job, I need to get back to being as organised and pre-planned about my meals as I used to be when I lived at home.

Part of the problem is that I don’t keep all my food in the one cupboard, so things are scattered between three different cupboards so I completely lose track of what I do and don’t have in there. This then backfires in various ways from the difficulties caused by discovering at an inconvenient moment that I don’t have an essential part of a particular recipe, or at the opposite end of the scale I bring home several cans of chopped tomatoes that were on special, only to find I already have four cans in the cupboard and nowhere to put them. (Hence tomato soup, which handily used up three cans of chopped tomatoes and a can of butterbeans I’d forgotten why I bought but keep getting in the way at inconvenient moments.) So it’s high time I had a clear out, figured what I do in fact have in there and sat down with the recipe book to figure out what to cook with them before they all expire on me! Hopefully, this will lead me to trying even more things as I actually have cupboard space to fill with new things.

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November 52

Of all the various targets that I set myself this month, the one that has been most unexpectedly successful was my determination to cook more new ingredients. I know there’s no physical way for me to catch up, but I hoped I might actually manage a month that averaged out to a new ingredient each week. And lo and behold I was actually successful! It was a bit touch and go there until the last week of the month, in fact I was properly close to the line with the last ingredient being sprinkled into soup yesterday and today. However, despite a shaky start – I made all the chilli in the world at the start of the month and thoroughly scunnered myself of it – and being away for work part of the month, I managed to take reliable dishes from my repertoire and add a more adventurous twist to them with a new ingredient.

Adzuki Beans

I picked these up as an alternative to kidney beans and cooked them much as I would kidney beans, in a veggie chilli. Before cooking they had a similar colour to kidney beans, though they’re smaller and between that and their two-tone colour scheme – that to my eyes makes them look as though they’re bursting out of their skins – they reminded me more of black-eyed beans.

Since making dinner with them I’ve discovered that these are in fact the red beans that make up red-bean paste so I feel I really ought to have done something more exciting with them. Perhaps having a go at making chaat or experimenting with a Japanese dessert!

Whole-wheat Noodles

As part of my plan to try lots of new ingredients this year, I’ve been picking up all kinds of new and interesting noodles to try. These ones ended up being next on the list for the simple – and expedient – reason that they were due to expire at the end of the month. They’re fine. Much like whole-wheat pasta, I feel they need a bit extra cooking, along with a flavoursome sauce, because they taste similar and I find that a bit discombobulating when eaten alongside a stir-fry. I think my issue with them is that you can taste the whole-wheat, and I associate that with self-declared ‘health-foods’ – the kind of thing you only eat because you know it’s good for you – and tastes like it’s good for you isn’t actually a compliment. Perfectly serviceable but not something I’m likely to bother with going forward.

Yuzu Citrus Seasoning

I wasn’t sure how effective this would be, but actually this was surprisingly good. When I don’t have any stir-fry sauces in the house, I make a basic sauce with lime juice, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, Chinese five spice and a little corn flour. If I’m in a hurry I just chuck a good slug of any two of those give it a good stir and hope for the best. The first time I cooked with Yuzu I just slung some rice wine vinegar and a generous slug of Yuzu into my stir-fry and was really pleased with the result. The Yuzu seasoning I’d bought has a little thickener in it, so was just thick enough that it coated everything and didn’t just end up sizzling in the bottom of the pan. It soaked in nicely to the tofu and the baby sweet corn, giving them a mellow citrusy tang, and while the other ingredients didn’t pick it up quite so well, it left the ghost of a tang in the back of my throat on every bite.

Apparently there’s been a bit of a fad for it here among foodies, and I can see why. I look forward to substituting it for lime juice in all kinds of different dishes going forward.


I’ve had this for ages and never got round to cooking with it, though the scent has been seeping out the bag and making me hungry whenever I come across it. I must confess that I was prompted to cook with this because I’d been feeling chuffed with myself for having actually tried four new ingredients this month, only to realise that it was only three when I came to write up this post! However when I was making soup (Cauliflower and Leek) I came across my packet of Za’atar and was inspired. I find that Cauliflower can often be a bit bland, unless paired with a strong flavour, which is why I often but it in curries and prefer my cauliflower cheese to be made with a good strong cheese. So I’ve been experimenting with using it to season said soup, it’s taken a few goes to get the right level of seasoning – too little and while it smells amazing you can barely taste it. It adds an extra level of warming to the soup and gives a little extra kick to an otherwise quite plain soup.

It’s less of a taste on the tongue and in the back of the throat and the nose, but no less pleasurable for that. I make a Cauliflower and Ras el Hanout Soup, and I think substituting Za’atar for the Ras el Hanout would give it a more mellow flavour. One perhaps more suitable for when I make it for my less adventurous relatives!

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Fraught Subjects

Food and health. If there was ever a subject more fraught, I’m not sure what it might be.

(On which subject, this article inspired today’s post, and if you do in fact have food and/or weight issues, neither this nor the article itself may be for you.)

I’m lucky in many ways; the vast majority of my interactions between food and health have been in regard to mental health. I’ve written before about my policy of food as self-care, and the way in which I can track my general mental-health by how regularly I’m cooking and how well I’m eating.

It wasn’t until my most recent temp role that I really had to deal with – on a day-to-day basis – just how dysfunctional a lot of people’s relationship is with food. Most other places I’d worked we had staggered lunches, or we were all skint so were all bringing leftovers for lunch. (Or for a while, they were all workaholics who ate lunch at their desk and rarely took a break.) But latterly I worked somewhere were my cheerful little packed lunches of soup or bagels or leftovers were a subject of fascination. My colleagues seemed to be always on diets. Restricting themselves to a greater or lesser extent in a constant quest for a smaller dress size or a beach body. (There always seemed to be a next ‘thing’ to lose weight for: the next holiday or wedding or dress.) I used to swim before work twice a week, a habit I took up – and gradually built up to – after I stopped playing roller derby and could feel my already dodgy joints seizing up from my sedentary job. Apparently not wanting to seize up wasn’t enough of a reason for the exercise, but as I’d taken to motivating myself for my early morning swims with the promise of a nice coffee and a muffin breakfast afterwards, I found an explanation they could understand. I like cake, since turning thirty I don’t burn calories like I used to so it was either give up cake or take up exercise.

Complete nonsense of course, but it kept people off my back about it. In fact, when I did find myself drifting out of the healthy weight range a couple of years ago – and really I was more concerned that my favourite dress was uncomfortably tight – the dietary change I made the most difference was changing from full-fat to semi-skimmed milk and making my pasta bakes with more vegetables and less pasta. But then, lots of people don’t want to hear that small sustainable changes over a long period make more impact than big dramatic restrictive changes that you can’t possible sustain. The only people I know who’ve cut whole food groups out of their diets and sustained that are vegetarians – who generally cut down and then out types of meat over time before going the whole hog – or people who’ve developed/discovered food allergies or intolerances who are sustained by the sudden relief from the side-effects of the food group in question. And even they have the occasional wobbles when faced with a former favourite – looking at you prawn crackers – or when it’s follow the rules or go hungry.

One of my colleagues is mildly dairy-intolerant, something I only discovered because we’d been working on an Outside Broadcast and he was looking a bit ropey at breakfast the following morning. We’d had a late post-work dinner the previous evening so I knew he hadn’t been drinking – he doesn’t drink as a general rule – but he approached that morning’s breakfast with all the wariness of the queasily hung-over. Cheese, he confessed later, he loved the stuff but it did not love him, and occasionally he would risk the consequences for the sake of a tasty dinner.

The obsession with calorie counts seems both baffling and counterproductive to me. I have a clear memory of reading Bridget Jones’ Diary as a teenager and her friend Tom pointing out to her that her standard calorie count – both the one she aimed for and the one she normally achieved – were lower than the amount that you’re medically supposed to need each day. The only time she actually reached her fabled ‘ideal’ weight, everyone kept telling her she looked ill. Whatever other problems those books might have, I owe Helen Fielding a lot for giving teenage me a big flashing arrow to point out what nonsense the whole dance was. And yet, increasingly I see calorie counts everywhere. They seem utterly counter-productive; I can’t help but feel that if you’re picking your sandwich by whether it has 20 less calories than the other one, you’ve got bigger problems going on. And frankly if I’m having the kind of day where treating myself to a coffee and cream confection is the only way to improve it, the calorie count is the last thing on my mind. And frankly it’s the kind of thing that makes me ask for extra whip.

I don’t believe in mixing guilt and food. Even when it comes to being a vegetarian I try to avoid falling into that trap of pointless self-flagellation. I try not to worry about the trace ingredients – I may make sure that the hard Italian chees I buy for my own cooking is vegetarian, but I’m not going to interrogate the waitress at the Italian restaurant about whether that’s authentic parmesan she’s offering me. (A Mint Aero is a guilty pleasure to me, not because of the chocolate itself, but because Nestle have a bunch of unethical business practices I prefer not to condone, but they’ve also cornered the market in decent mint milk chocolate.) The bad food of the month will change just as surely as the weather; all we can do is eat the best we can with the resources available to us. I’ve known skinny people who ate terribly and have sundry health issues and fat people who are athletes with excellent diets, and I know exactly which of them are getting hassled by their GP.

Food should be pleasurable; you should feel better after you’ve eaten than before. (At the very least, less hungry.) If you don’t there’s a problem. If it’s your only pleasure then that’s a different problem. But in the end it’s usually a symptom of another ill – whether physical, mental or social. And those we can only fix gradually and carefully over time. But we can start, by being kinder about food and bodies, both to ourselves and to each other.

Categories: challenges, feeling philisophical, nablopomo | Leave a comment

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