Monthly Archives: July 2009

Our Donner Party


My family in front of Donner Lake

My family in front of Donner Lake

Tomorrow begins my family’s 20th annual Donner Lake vacation. What started as a gathering of 11 has grown with our families and this year we will have approximately 19 people on any given night, but that number will fluctuate as friends and family will stop by for dinner or to stay the night. 

As each car pulls up to the cabin, it is swarmed with family running out to hug and help carry in the luggage. Beyond the first day, we have a rule that no one has to do anything they don’t want to and when anyone asks what time it is, the answer is always, “It’s vacation time.” During the day,  my family will divide up into several small groups and people will do what they enjoy. Reading on the patio, trips to the beach, hikes in the woods and trips to downtown Truckee are common. My dad goes on long hikes almost daily. Christopher and I share in most of these activities but the long running joke is that Grandma is always in the kitchen.

We spent years trying to get Grandma out of the kitchen, where she helps which ever group is responsible for that night’s dinner or clean up. Finally a few years ago, she said “If the rule is that everyone gets to do what they want to do,then you need to leave me alone and let me do what I want and I am happy in the kitchen.”

Food is a big part of our time at Donner. The different families take turns making dinners throughout the week and there are certain foods that make appearances every year. My grandpa’s favorite, and my least favorite, is the night he makes turkey; the liver is cut into pieces, wrapped in bacon, grilled and served with an olive and a water chestnut as an appetizer to those brave enough to eat it.

Despite the fact that we are all over the place during the day, in the evening we sit down as one enormous family and eat together.

This makes me think about how fortunate I was growing up. For most of my life my family has always had dinner together. Usually my mom cooked and with few exceptions ( a horrible creation called Tamale Pie being one) we liked everything she made. On rare occasions we would get the treat of fast food or as my dad liked to call it when it was his turn to make dinner, “Chef’s surprise.” Conversations around the table would range from what everyone had done that day to problems we might be having. It was not uncommon for one of my sisters or I to have a friend over for dinner. My friend Nicole was a frequent enough guest star at our table to prompt my older sister to ask, “Nicole, don’t you ever go home.”

As we got older and got wrapped up in high school, jobs, friends, and other school activities, dinners together became less common. At that point, while I loved my family, it seemed like an inconvenience to have to be home for dinner. I wanted to be out with my friends. Looking back I feel that the closeness of my family and our communion together helped to shape me into who I am. 

 I am looking forward to the next week filled with laughter and family dinners. Of course, with the abundance of people comes an overabundance of food. Christopher and I will again face the temptation of too many sweets ( my sister will bring cakes) and general overeating.

If you have the time, eat a meal with your family this week.




Filed under Uncategorized

Taking a Vow.

The Los Olivos dining hall at California Polytechnic University at Pomona is fascinating microcosm of the American food system, where in addition to health vegan options you can also find things like this: a bread just labeled "Yellow." Photo by Christopher.

The Los Olivos dining hall at California Polytechnic University at Pomona is fascinating microcosm of the American food system, where in addition to healthy vegan options you can also find things like this: a bread just labeled "Yellow." Photo by Christopher.

I never lived in a dorm. I never had a “meal plan” in college. And as a result I have never experienced or reflected on the daily impact of this process. Until now. In fact, the closest I ever came to eating food in a college dining hall was when I downed a small carton of chocolate soymilk at the University of San Francisco cafeteria nearly a decade ago. However, for the past week I have been lucky enough to eat at Los Olivos, the mess hall at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.

As a fellow of the Ahimsa Center, which focuses on the practice and study of nonviolence, as a part of the College of Letters, Arts & Social Sciences, I have been well fed three times a day. During this experience I have found that the lessons learned during the dollar diet project, and during our most recent experiments in eating have significantly changed my habits. I find myself asking for smaller portions from the food service staff, making choices based on nutrition guidance from the USDA, and avoiding foods high in fats and sugars.

But in my suite, away from the brightly lit space, and public accountability of the college cafeteria, a package of Oreo cookies occupied a small piece of real estate on our kitchen counter. Yet the space these cookies occupied in my mind was far lager. I avoided them for the first couple of days. I felt that our study of Gandhi was a good reminder about the need for self-restraint. Yet the conversations late into the night gave way to deeper urges, and by one in the morning I was picking the chocolatey goodness from my teeth.

During the following day’s lecture we briefly discussed the notion of “vows.” So today I have decided to take a vow to no longer eat prepackaged cookies. I feel comfortable with this little step, and find that this will keep my sweet tooth on a leash in a simple but practical way. I will limit my sweet eating to specially home baked treats from family and friends, and rare outings at restaurants. It will be like taking my sweet tooth out for a walk every now and again instead of letting it roam the neighborhood.

I will replace this urge with healthier options like strawberries, melon, and grapes in the dining hall while I remain at Cal Poly. These succulent options have been readily available, as have decent vegan options at each meal. According to Dr. Tara Sethia, founder of the Ahimsa Center at the University, this is one of the things she has spent the last few years developing. Her commitment to nonviolence extends beyond the classroom and the study of Gandhi, and into the cafeteria where all students have the option to practice nonviolence (at least in eating).

Every day there has been a delicious nonviolent option, from curry to chili, and yesterday the grilled teriyaki tofu, steamed vegetables, and rice more than satisfied. The salad bars also stand in the center of the dining hall as a testament to student’s interest in leafy greens.

However, the standard fare is far from diverse: corn dogs, burgers, pizza, rows of sugary cereal dispensers, and liquid sugar flowing freely from soda taps. This contrast is a good representation of the current food system in the United States. Where healthier, more sustainable options are available if you make a concerted effort to find them among the faster foods. This is where Gandhian self-restraint comes into play. In my case with the Oreo’s, it may take something like a vow to eat better.

– Christopher

P.S. I am doing a new mini-blog during my stay at the Ahimsa Center. It’s called “Going Gandhi” and will document some of my experiments in truth as related to my study of nonviolence.

PPS. Speaking of sugar…Kerri’s sister has started a cake blog here. Her stuff is artful and tasty, so check it out.


Filed under Uncategorized

Pathway to Food Freedom.

After tearing down an old decripit shed, and reusing some broken concrete to make a path around gardening beds, this piece of our backyard will soon feed us. Garden by Kerri. Photo by Christopher.

After tearing down an old decrepit shed, and reusing some broken concrete to make a path around gardening beds, this piece of our backyard will soon feed us. Garden by Kerri. Photo by Christopher.

This past week Christopher and I had a fence built so that I could give gardening in the backyard another try. The dogs are confused that their backyard is just a little smaller;  they don’t seem to understand why they can’t go behind the fence.

Learning to garden has been quite an experience for me, I feel like it will take years to master, but it is worth the time. For right now I am enjoying heading out to the back yard several times a day to check the progress. I planted late, so we still have not enjoyed all of  the fruits (actually veggies) of my labor, but every once in a while a bit of my garden is center stage at dinner.

I am finding out some tricks as I go along, such as there are several places where you can get cheap or inexpensive compost. Yesterday I enlisted the help of a friend with a truck and he took me down to the Mira Mar landfill where San Diego City residents can get 1-2 cubic yards  of compost for free and other county residents pay only $10.  There are several other places in San Diego county with similar offers. Of course, my load of compost ended up being more expensive than I had planned. When we got past the gates of the landfill, a large truck kicked up a rock and shattered the driver’s side window. While my friend was midsentence in telling me he was willing to help us get compost anytime, a shower of glass poured down over him. I wonder if he will retract his offer.

I bribed him to go with the promise of a car wash and free access to my garden as soon as things really started growing. After the broken window and the time he spent helping me fill my raised beds, I think he earned it. One of the joys of growing my own food is sharing it with others.

One co-worker stopped by the other day and dropped off peaches and plums from her yard just because I mentioned that I would be willing to share and trade any access that we have. Christopher’s mom stopped by  and I was able to send her home with lemon cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, green beans, and figs and lemons from our trees. There is a certain amount of pride I feel when I hand over the bounty. I am  quick to note which ones I planted from seeds and which came from seedlings.  I am most  proud of those I grew by myself and thinning my seedlings is hard on me.  I don’t want to get rid of anything I worked so hard to grow.

Share with those you love,



Filed under Uncategorized

Sweet (In)Dependence.

Delicious vegan sugar cookies helped us ring the bell of freedom on Independence Day, as we struggled with our addiction to sugar. Photo by Christopher.

Delicious vegan sugar cookies helped us ring the bell of freedom on Independence Day, as we struggled with our addiction to sugar. Photo by Christopher.

While sitting on the lazy bike at the gym on Saturday, I glanced up from Louis Fischer’s book “Gandhi” to see Joey “Jaws” Chesnut cramming down his 68th hot dog to set a new world record and defend his title as part of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest which has been held on July 4 for the last 94 years on Coney Island in New York City. Call it coincidence, but as I read about one man fasting to create powerful social change, another man waved a large trophy in the air, while 1.5 million people like me sat watching it on national television.

As part of our most recent experiment in eating, Kerri and I have been spending quite a lot of time at the gym, planning menus, and doing our best to eat well, but the process has been quite challenging at times. There is food everywhere, most of it is sweetened or salted to a “bliss point,” and when people get together, it’s usually over a meal. The eternal invitation to indulge is hard to resist. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the power of vegan cupcakes during Father’s Day, but as Saturday was Independence Day the veggie dogs, potato salad, and sugar cookies at our friend Justin’s house were ready to be enjoyed en masse and pushed into the depths of my belly.

I went back to reading about Gandhi. More fasting. More political change. Then another glance up at the television. On a commercial break there was one ad proclaiming that you could “Use food to lose weight!” complete with before and after pictures. Another for a salad dressing that apparently had something to do with a man and his dog getting the paper (the sound was off). And on another television, a breeze of snack crackers danced around the screen as kids chased them into the house. Our culture is food obsessed, and utterly self conscious about our weight (rightfully so?). This duality is hard to reconcile in any meaningful way, and is exactly what I have been struggling with. At that moment in a room packed full of other people looking to be fit, it seemed comically tragic.

After the gym, I spent the morning preparing sugar cookies. This says it all.

But if that is not enough. I even made my own dyes for the frosting. A crafty endeavor stemming from a desire to not eat “chemicals,” or “artificial” food products. I think this is what literary people call irony, and our country’s attitudes toward health and eating are marinating in it. Regardless, while making the cookies I could not help but eat chunks of dough every now and then, and when they came out of the oven, it was easy to find the ones that had to be eaten (this one is a little too crisp, that one a little too broken). And so my physical exercise was easily overcome by the buttery baked biscuits of sugar.

I began to wonder what Gandhi would say about Joey “Jaws” Chesnut and an event such as this annual eating contest. I thought about my own struggle to eat well and get in shape. I wondered if it would ever really be possible to create lifestyle habits that are both bliss filled and healthy. If you have suggestions, please get in touch.

To the taste of sugar in my mouth,  the need to be fit, and a culture gone wild over it’s eats…

– Christopher


Filed under Uncategorized