Chicken Farmers host a Toronto food blogger meetup

I knew that I would like the people behind the Chicken Farmers of Canada social media the minute that I saw their Twitter bio:

Chicken Farmers of Canada Twitter identity

And how can you not like a group that organizes a free Toronto Food Bloggers Meetup with an interesting panel of speakers at Edward Levesque’s Kitchen, complete with tasty chicken appetizers and free-flowing wine?

The topic of the evening was the decline of home cooking: hosted by Theresa Albert, nutritionist and cookbook author, and including Anna Withrow, food writer and founder of the LIVERight awards,  Amanda Laird, food blogger, and Ryan Anderson, Web strategist and PR blogger. Theresa started by passing around a copy of the recent NYT article by Michael Pollan (author of several books including The Omnivore’s Dilemma), “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch”, contrasting the rise of food-related TV shows that fetishize cooking with the decline of anyone actually doing it. His article points out that the average American spends 27 minutes per day on food preparation, which is less than half the time required to watch one episode of most of the hugely popular shows on the Food Network; what’s wrong with this picture? Even the word “cooking” these days can mean opening a few cans and heating something in the microwave, rather than actual cooking from scratch: food researcher Henry Balzer said that washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it is considered cooking by most Americans (and probably Canadians) these days. Food TV has jump-started interest in food and cooking, but also created has fearfulness about the complexity: if someone can’t even figure out what the ingredients are or where to buy them, it stifles any adventurous nature that they might have had. And how do movies like “Julie and Julia” impact our popular culture around food? Cooking has shifted from being a matter of survival to an art form.

This shift to more prepared and processed foods has a health impact, too: typically, you’ll find more bad stuff such as fat, salt and weird chemicals in processed foods, and less good stuff such as fiber and vitamins. A few years ago, Damir and I switched to a mostly macrobiotic diet – which eschews processed foods – for several months, and I never felt so good: I lost some weight (which was not my primary goal) and had a lot more energy. Some of those eating habits stayed with us, resulting in almost no processed foods at home, lots of whole grains and raw vegetables, and semi-vegetarian eating habits; today for lunch, for example, we had brown rice with toasted sesame seeds and raw sunflower shoots, which was delicious. People on non-standard diets, whether macrobiotic, vegetarian or vegan, tend to cook more and eat better, although there always exceptions, like one vegetarian I know who lives on take-out cheese pizza.

Getting back to last night’s panel, Theresa opened with some words about food as the “center of our universe”, related to both health and culture. She realizes that what she shows to an audience is limited as a Food Network chef; as she put it, “I stand up there and chop shit…the producers decide what you see”, and related a story of the producers cutting out a segment because you could hear the bone crunching when she spatchcocked a chicken: an indication of how disconnected we have become from how food is created. Anna agreed, saying that we need to recreate that connection with the nutrients, and how packaged and fast food has separated us from that. Unlike the research shown in the NYT article, she doesn’t consider mixing fresh ingredients into prepared food to be “cooking”, but admits that it’s better than just using prepared food. She has canning parties with her friends, which shows a greater dedication to being aware of what you eat than many of us have.

Ryan and his girlfriend have embarked on an interesting culinary experiment: for a month (which they are halfway through), they are cooking everything from scratch. And by “scratch”, he means making everything from tortillas to butter. He said that he didn’t realize that he was that good of a cook until he started cooking with friends, and contrasted his skills with theirs; what we might consider basics such as making a chicken stock or a roux is intimidating to others.

Amanda discussed the influence of coming from a family where there was a home-cooked meal on the table every night: she follows recipes fairly religiously, and plans ahead for meals five nights each week to avoid becoming overwhelmed and ending up eating take-out junk. I’m not nearly that organized, but I also rarely use recipes so my cooking can usually accommodate whatever happens to be in the fridge. She also mentioned some good starter cooking tips on Pretty Savvy, including her suggestion to make YouTube your sous chef.

The three competing factors in food today are cost, health and time: you’re usually trading off on at least one of these, whether you’re eating at McDonalds (bad for your health), buying gourmet prepared foods at Whole Foods (your pocketbook suffers), or cooking meals from scratch at home (if you have the time). With a greater awareness of health issues – thanks to Super Size Me and a raft of other information sources – many of us are only making the cost/time tradeoff, and with the economy in the toilet, lots of people are okay with spending more time if it costs less. Theresa pointed out that there are a lot of ways to save a lot of time while still cooking good food from scratch. For one, start using your oven again; food TV is biased towards stovetop cooking, which typically takes constant attention, but most things cooked in the oven are tossed in there are left on their own for a while, freeing you up for other activities. The same is true of slow cookers: she suggested that a student heading off to university could be equipped with a slow cooker, a rice cooker and a few basic recipes, and eat healthily all semester without spending a lot of time in preparation.

The panel seemed in agreement that if we lose the ability to cook, we become dysfunctional in many ways in our life. I also concur: in my experience, cooking what we eat isn’t just about eating better, it’s about making a house into a home.

Wii Workout: Day 7

Whoever said that you can’t get fit on a Wii Fit never tried the Expert level of Rhythm Boxing, or even Super Hula Hoops: 2 minutes into the 10-minute boxing session, the sweat is running down my back. You can get fit with this, and I’m on a mission to drop some weight and get fit over the summer while my travel schedule is light.

The Wii Fit journey started in late May, when we scored one for my mom for her 85th birthday and had a fun weekend at their place trying it out; a week ago when we returned from holidays, we picked up one for ourselves. After having to reset the first few days of results due to an error in setting the original date (the Wii does not shift the date of your results when you change the date on the device, making for some weirdnesses: get it right the first time), we’re now on day 7 of using the Wii Fit.

One big benefit is the daily body test: each day, you can check your weight and balance — the Wii uses balance as a measure of your fitness — and track your weight and BMI on a graph. That lets me see, for example, that I’ve dropped 2 pounds in the 7 days that I’ve been using it, which is very encouraging. My BMI indicates that I’m over the line from “normal” into “overweight”, and my goal is to get that back into the normal range, which is only 6 pounds away at this point, and further into the range to be close to the ideal BMI of 22.

The Wii Fit gradually unlocks the full range of exercises available as you accumulate time, and I have most activities unlocked (except for some of the strength exercises, which I’m not using yet); some activities also have basic, advanced and expert levels within them, so there’s even more variation that you might guess from the initial menus.

Although I do want to work on strength eventually, my morning workout current consists of about 30 minutes of aerobics — a combination of the advanced step class and rhythm boxing to get both the upper and lower body working — and 30 minutes of yoga once the muscles are warm from the aerobics. The yoga positions are really good, since most of them are done on the Wii balance board, and correct your position by noting when you’re off balance. It has a demo for each yoga position, telling you what muscles to contract and how to do the move, and an on-screen instructor does the pose with you. I’ve had pain in my left shoulder for several months now, and the yoga is helping it a lot.

There’s also balance games, which are fun and do help improve your balance and therefore build up some of your core muscles, but not really a workout: I use these mostly when I want to take a break from my desk.

The real advantage for me is the ability to do all this in my living room: although there’s a gym in our condo building, I rarely use it since even the minimal hassle of going down there seems too much, and takes me away from my phone in case of a client call if I’m working out during business hours. Also, the Wii is just a lot more fun.

My 5km

If you know me in person, you know that I’m not much of an athlete, but I decided to do a 5km walk this past weekend as part of the Scotiabank marathon to raise money for a friend’s pet charity, the Fort York Food Bank.

Amazingly, I walked the 5km in 48 minutes. Even more amazingly, my very generous friends donated $1850 to FYFB in sponsorship of my walk.

After I sent out a thank you note to all my sponsors, Mark Kuznicki, who biked the 660km rally from Toronto to Montreal in support of People with AIDS this year, responded:

Amazing!  At $1850/5km, you’ve now established a new effectiveness benchmark for me.  Hmmm….let’s see, that means I would have to raise $244,200 for the Bike Rally next year!  I need richer friends.

What’s the emoticon for ambivalence?

I saw this in large poster format in an apartment window while on the train in from O’Hare airport to downtown Chicago earlier this week:

I (heart) my period

My first thought that was this was a marketing campaign created by men, but it turns out the company behind it is a small group of women. I find it difficult, however, to share their sentiments.

Reggae Run

My friend Susan, who has been living with rheumatoid arthritis for over 25 years, will be running another half-marathon this year to raise money for the Arthritis Society and all of the great research that they do to keep people like her running (or at least walking). I’ve written previously about her last run, the half-marathon in Amsterdam last October: the picture on the left is her crossing the finish line, still smiling after 40km.

She’s headed for the Reggae Marathon in Jamaica this November, and you can sponsor her here.


I can’t say enough good things about the Body Blitz spa. I was there last week (my 3rd or 4th visit), and it was heavenly. First of all, partaking of the “waters” before your treatment is a blissful experience, especially on a chilly day like last Thursday when the heat was not yet on in my condo and I had been feeling cold all day.

It works like this: you book a massage, body scrub, or whatever else that you want from their service menu, then you show up an hour and a half early for a free visit to therapeutic waters: soak in the big warm salt water pool for about 15 minutes, then off to the (hot hot hot) steam room for 5, a rinse in the shower then a minute in the cold plunge pool, then 5 minutes in the dry sauna, another rinse and cold plunge, then 5 or 10 minutes in the hot green tea pool before returning to the salt water pool to finish the cycle. Women only, bathing suits optional.

At the end of it, you can lounge around the pool for a while until you are called for your treatment, and you head off into the rooms at the back for a massage, scrub or mud bath. While my friend Rajani went for her massage, I indulged in “the sampler” body wash and scrub with the mint-lime sea salt scrub.

Totally relaxed, we headed over to Johnny Banana‘s for mojitos and the best chicken enchiladas this side of Mexico City. I read a review for Johnny Banana late last summer just after they opened, and visited for the first time before they even had their liquor licence. I can’t find the original online review, but everything that I’ve had there has been fabulous, especially the chicken enchiladas with green tomatillo sauce that we both had last week — not on the regular menu, alas. They’re in a bit of a funny location, on Bathurst a few doors north of Queen, so miss much of the Queen West walk-by traffic but definitely deserve a closer look (and taste).

Marathoning with Arthritis

Susan prepping for the marathonMy friend Susan has had rheumatoid arthritis for over 25 years, and a couple of years ago she ran her first marathon. I was there in Dublin in 2004 when she ran her second one, and now she’s running the half-marathon in Amsterdam on October 15th. She solicits charitable donations for the Arthritis Society as part of their Joints in Motion running team: note that usually a JIM team is made up of people who are running in support of someone who them know with arthritis, not the arthritis sufferer herself.

If you know Susan, or even if you don’t, you can sponsor her online here.

My abs hurt, do I have a six-pack yet?

Yesterday was the first day of lower body workout, which included about a million ab crunches. Now I pretty much hurt all over, and I stepped on the scale to discover that I’ve gained two pounds since Monday. My weight fluctuates by about five pounds normally so this is not unprecedented, but hardly bodes well for the start of the 12-week program.

Just to ensure that I don’t lose any weight at all in the next week, my birthday is on Saturday. Tomorrow afternoon, I’m sailing with my friend Ingrid and staying out at her yacht club for a BBQ, after which she’s promised me s’mores for a pre-birthday dessert. Then on Saturday, Pat and my sister Betty are taking me to Banu, an Iranian Kebob Vodka Bar (really!), for lunch; and Damir is taking me somewhere for dinner, the exact location of which is still shrouded in mystery (or not yet selected).

Working out

Our new exercise regimen started this week on Monday: three days per week on weight training, alternating between upper and lower body, and the alternate three days per week on aerobic exercise. Sunday, we rest. We’re doing the Body for Life plan which requires only about 45 minutes on the weights days and 20 minutes on the cardio days, so it’s hard to make the excuse that it takes too much time. However, with Damir off to a customer early each day this week, that means getting up at 5:30, in the gym by 6 at the latest, and back here for a shower by 7. I’ve never been an early riser, but I’m finding this not too difficult and even waking up before the alarm, maybe because we’re doing it together. Or maybe because I’ve cut out most alcohol during the week. 🙂

I started with upper body on Monday, and yesterday my arms and chest muscles were aching. Today was lower body, which is a lot harder because of an ancient injury to both of my quadriceps that makes it difficult to do even the easiest exercises. A few weeks of workouts should take care of that. I like a lot of the lower body exercises because I can really feel the muscles stretching (I may not be liking that so much tomorrow when the pain sets in): I feel like I’ve become too inflexible and the stretching of my calves and hamstrings feels good. The upper body ones are just weird — I guess because most women don’t do anything to develop their upper body, me included, and trying to find my triceps, much less work them out, is difficult. I have to keep moving things around slightly to make sure that I’m even working the right muscles and not causing any undue joint strain. I hope to start dropping some weight after the first few weeks, I’m currently as zaftig as I’ve ever been, and it doesn’t feel comfortable — I’d be happy to drop 20 pounds or so over the next several months. Oh yeah, did I mention that this program is 12 weeks to start?!

One cool thing about getting up much earlier than I usually do is that when I turn on my computer around 7, I see a wide variety of friends available on Skype: Australia, Europe and other early-rising North Americans all online at once.