Wednesday, May 26, 2010

food allergies are fun (not!)

A weekend in the country, all that fresh air and country cooking sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Sadly, for the weaker members of our species, like me, it’s a slow road back to health after a break like this one. Instead of returning refreshed, the subsequent days are peppered with aching joints, a runny nose and the type of intestinal distress that has no place on the pages of a food blog.

My current condition reminds me of a recent piece in The Age by Sian Prior. Hard to Stomach, informatively depicts the physical and social downsides of living with food allergies, intolerances and the like. In the end Sian concluded that she’s only eating at home in future.

Once I got out of denial about my dairy allergy (no it’s not “normal” for my gut to do the things it did, nor to get a cold every month and glands to rise and fall like a hyperactive child jumping on a trampoline) and reintroduced seafood into my once vegetarian diet, life got a lot more fun. Sure I missed mountains of melted yellow cheese on a pile of nachos, Philly and homemade apricot jam smeared on pumpernickel and finding comfort in a bowl of chocolate ice cream but I wouldn’t swap it for feeling sick 80% of the time.

The “new” diet has been imbedded for two decades now and it’s so much a part of my life that my relationship with dairy products made it into a birthday rap friends wrote for me a few years ago. I’ve a few more pesky intolerances I have to navigate around but I’ve got the hang of it by now. I don’t go out of my way looking for alternatives or bemoan what I can’t eat, I just negotiate my way through the amazing cuisines on offer in this city.

But there lies the key. You can’t expect the country to offer the same range of foods as the city and when I found myself in the Blue Mountains for the weekend I felt catapulted into a time warp. Katoomba, I soon discovered, is the town that time forgot. For some reason it appears to have got stuck in the 70’s, especially the food and music (James Taylor and Pink Floyd cover bands for your listening pleasure).

It’s difficult to explain, even to a friend, why when the only vegetarian item on a menu is pumpkin soup I get nervous. It means I have to potentially ask three very fussy-eater questions or suffer the consequences. Do you use vegetables stock? Is the stock fresh or powdered (does it contain MSG)? Is there any cream/dairy in the soup?

It can get very embarrassing being perceived as being fussy, attention seeking or worse*. The reality is it’s about survival not pickiness. Lately when I’ve encountered monosodium glutamate (additive 621) instead of only suffering the inconvenience of an insatiable thirst and mood swings (oh boy, don’t take me on a first date to an Asian restaurant!), I now have the additional sensation that a small elephant is sitting on my chest. Feeling like you can’t breath is rather frightening, especially when it’s something that hasn’t happened before. Adrenaline courses through your body as survival reflexes kick in, your mind panics and after the first few struggling minutes you wildly wonder if you are going to die. At the same time I have to restrain myself from ripping of my clothes (“this top feels so heavy, maybe if I take it off I’ll be able to breathe?”) and running out of the restaurant (“there’s not enough air in here, it will be better outside”). Ok, so maybe a dash of MSG could make me a really fun first date after all!

I accept that my decision to no longer eat meat is a choice. It’s one based on what feels right physically, environmentally and ethically but I’m not going to preach about it, it’s personal. But modifying your diet due to food allergies and intolerances is the difference between being well and experiencing a variety of physiological reactions. At this point they are not life threatening, just darned uncomfortable.

But unlike Sian, I’ll still risk eating out, I’ll continue going on holidays and I will eat at friend’s houses. Well that is, if I have any who’ll still cook for me!

* The Age reported earlier in the month that most food allergies are non-existent yet did nothing to clear up the differences between allergies and intolerances. It is true, the majority of people with reactions to foods and substances do not have anaphylaxis. As I noted, my issues don't kill me, just make me feel crap (literally!) for days. The article is worth reading for the comments. No surprises there - we are all a bunch of hypochondriac moaning Minnies.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Autumn light - a picture of satisfaction

So you like the light? Here is a less offensive image to feast your eyes on


Was - eggs fried in the middle of a slice of bread. According to the fried egg wiki it's called egg in a basket. I call it not toad in a hole.

How do you like your eggs?

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Monday, May 17, 2010

still life with nipples

A well-meaning friend gave the Significant Eater an interesting gift last month. His mother is a bit of a collector and there was an item left aside that she had no use for, the friend thought it a perfect gift for the SE.

I was not so enamoured with the present. It sat on display in the living room for an entire month before I broke my silence and removed the offending parts.

The gift, you see, was a crockery cruet set of a reclining nude. The head and legs store salt and pepper, the middle section providing perfect receptacles for oil and vinegar. I’m not a prude, there are a number of nudes on the walls of the house, it’s just this was an all round aesthetic fail.

Though I’ve got to say, uncoupled from the rest of the female form, it did catch my eye in the morning light.

Oh the trials and tribulations of living in the first world!

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Moosewood-haus: celebrating dietary niches

I was going to write about the joy of coming across unexpected treasures tucked away, marking once favoured recipes. But you know what? ‘Fessing up to being bathed in warm waves of nostalgia from finding an almost two decade old tram ticket in one of my Moosewood cookbooks just made me feel ancient. Not sure what is more aging – remembering tram conductors punching the lovely rectangular tickets, or admitting to owning a number of the hippy classics.

Instead I will mention that elsewhere in the world it’s Coeliac Awareness week (in Australia it’s actually in March) and I came across this lovely link for the 50 Best Blogs For Going Gluten-Free.

Bringing together the gluten-free and vegetarian, I had lunch at a newish, local eatery that appeals to both groups. Munsterhaus is pleasantly modern and un-Moosewoodish. The handful of hot dishes and vast selection of cold ones are served cafeteria-style and the brown rice (slyly hid under the counter) would make even Molly Katzen happy. You choose your plate size then point to the offerings you wish to eat. My combination was vegan, dairy-free and mighty tasty, leaving me wanting a return visit to try more of their interesting fare.

Just as well lunch was so delightful as the day turned cactus with a flat tyre shortly after. If only I'd caught a tram to lunch.

Note: This is not a review and I have no affiliations with the place but I will shout loudly from the rooftops (or blog page) in support of any appetizing, healthy, vegan/low dairy eateries in my locality.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

other people's food for thought

At the recent food blogging conference, where I was given the generous opportunity to talk about how and why I blog, restaurant reviewing was a hot topic. It’s something I’ve always felt uncomfortable about. I’m caught between the role of review as public service (vegetarian-friendly, caters for vegans, has healthy food, great food but under-patronized etc), or conversely not wanting to add to the publicity of an already hard to get a table at local favourite. Because I have a limited dietary range, whenever I’ve actually reviewed an eatery I’ve made it clear how this filters my experience of the menu.

Holidays are different. Reverting back to blogging in it’s original form as a web log/online diary, I’ve seen documenting dinning experiences in places like Bali, Malaysia or New Zealand as a way of sharing holiday highlights rather than an actual review. Just as I’ve found some delightful meals in out of the way places thanks to some nifty googling, so too are the many hits the blog has had for eating in Gili Air or Melaka.

An event late last year, which I haven’t written about before, crystallised my discomfort with reviews. That being, negative aspects of reviews can potentially impact on individuals who own or cook in such eateries. I think that a fair review is not gushingly uncritical nor an unnecessarily negative one and that balance lies somewhere in the middle. If I have an issue with the food, service or overall experience, I’ll own it if it’s due to my own mood or picky eating habit.

Out of the blue I answered the phone at work late last year to hear an aggressive man bark down the line “Are you the person who writes a blog called Confessions of a Food Nazi?” As you may have noticed, the blog is anonymous, though even before speaking at the conference it really only took two clicks of a mouse to work out my identity. It’s not so much that I want to be anonymous so I can write nasty reviews; the issue is that blogging is my hobby and I don’t like to blur the boundaries between work and my non-work (I am so not an entrepreneur!). While writing under a pseudonym I accept that I'm still accountable and identifiable and don't do anything to subvert that.

On the other end of the line, entirely out of context, was a chef/restaurant co-owner who had a beef with a response that I’d made to a series of untraceable comments* regarding a follow up to my original review of his restaurant. The place was getting quieter by the week and I dared suggest that unless all his ardent supporters ate there more often that they’d be out of business in a few months.

“How’d you like it if I said that you’d be out of business soon?” he shouted. He had a good point; I’d be very upset if unsubstantiated comments about my service were published on the internet. But the point he missed entirely was that I’d asked people to eat there and see what they made of the place, I’d asserted the good lineage of the restaurant and that although I didn’t have a huge choice the food was ok. It was just that it seemed to have an identity crisis and for some reason it didn’t work as a whole. Neighbours commented on a similar issue. I had a bundle of feedback from his target user group that I was happy to share with him on the phone but no matter how often I said, “I’m on your side – I want your restaurant to work” he kept shouting over me.

And clearly the restaurant wasn’t working. My predictions were correct. A few weeks after the verbal assault down the phone the place shut up shop and last week in Epicure I read that it was sold and the new owner had reopened under a similar name. I cycled past it on the weekend and observed a friendly looking chap serving a large table of relaxed looking people. They had the look of those who’ve just eaten a satisfying meal – a marketing tableau that money can’t buy.

Back to the phone call, two actually, with the chef who was most likely haemorrhaging money and understandably stressed. The reality is that a low traffic blog such as this, would have no real influence on the success or failure of his business. Interestingly, though there was one anodyne review in The Age shortly after it opened, nowhere else on the net was a review of any kind. It was flying under the radar and attracting no interest, no buzz. I called him back a few hours later after rereading my posts and the comment in light of his criticism, to point out that I’d qualified what I’d said and in fact done everything at the time that he’d later requested (i.e. “why didn’t you tell people to come and try it for themself?”). We ended up having an interesting conversation about the restaurant business. Though unfortunately he spent most of the time blaming other people and the location. We never actually touched on the fact that his menu seemed out of synch with the clientele he wanted to attract. It was not bad food, just priced higher than the locals were willing to pay for it. Only time will tell whether the new owner can make a go of the enterprise or the location is the "lemon" he asserted it was.

I was glad I could justify my criticisms and that it was a fair review, so that once he’d calmed down I could go over each point with him and gain some grudging acceptance. In the end the only issue he had was casting aspersions on the chances of the restaurant staying open. I guess I won that point too but perhaps there was a possibility that the venture could have been a success if he was able to take on board feedback – from a blogger as well as locals who’d stopped eating there.

My question to you the reader, local eater or fellow blogger – what do you think of blog based restaurant reviews? Do you write them? Do they help guide your eating out choices? How do blog reviews differ from print media? Is one or the other likely to be more impartial? Do you ever suspect a blogger or journalist is getting undisclosed freebies for their reviews? Could food bloggers be legitimate restaurant "consultants"?

I do read reviews from a handful of blogs. On the whole, I tend to ignore writers who only give glowing reviews or are too subjective, Gourmet Traveller included! I tend to skirt around simple reviews that merely say I like this or didn’t like that if it’s without context. And of course, being the Food Nazi, the lovers of meat and dairy are not the ones I tend to consult. But I’ll own that. One thing I love reading blog restaurant reviews for is something largely ignored by the print media, those covering dietary niches. I search for new vegan eateries when my sister visits and enjoy discovering allergy-friendly restaurants beyond the hippy ghetto. I love reviews exploring the diverse eating opportunities in my own neighbourhood as well as ones across town that I rarely get to visit.

What are your thoughts?

* a tip for restaurant owners - if you're going to plaster blog reviews with comments under various guises then consider writing in a variety of personas with different "voices" and genders. It helps also if you've commented on other local food blogs under those names too. Just a thought.

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Monday, May 03, 2010

ugg boots, comfort food and vegetable pies

Excuse this Melbourne obsession with weather. April, for the most part, was unseasonably humid and uncomfortable. My body hasn’t known whether it wants porridge or cold cereal, salads or soups and has been in a state of flux for weeks.

While some in the Northern Hemisphere might use birds flying south as a sign that winter has arrived, in this house the cat is the divining creature. The cool season officially begins the day she seeks a lap for comfort, after all – humans make the best heat pads. On Saturday night I awoke to a small furry creature attaching herself to my slumbering body, precariously balancing on my side – at 3.30am Princess Prissy Paws was pleased to announce that the warm season was officially closed.

Intellectually I know that cool weather is about grains, slow cooked dishes, legumes, bakes and braises but it takes some time for me to get my head into gear. To help me get my shopping list into shape, I've put together a short compilation of some seasonal favourites.

Chilli beans – made my first batch last week augmented with grated parsnip and carrot, plus some guacamole on the side. Fresh coriander was the only starlet missing.

Don’t like chilli? This bean and vegetable stew with green olives hits the spot nicely.

Colcannon - the cabbage lifts the nutrient profile of this butter-laden, winter soul food. Want. Some. Now!

Fish pie - just thinking about mashed potato makes me crave my white-sauce-free pie.

Spicy lentils and rice - I know lentils are “good” for me but I must admit I find them boring – except when thrown together like this with lots of herbs and a good quality vegetable stock.

Bean and vegetable soup - so versatile and warming.

Quinoa pilaf - I’ve been dreaming about this spunky little grain/seed lately, so time to make savoury quinoa like this and the creamy banana porridge as well.

A Thai influenced pumpkin soup was the perfect way to finish up last months green curry paste. For those not into chilli hot food, just use a generous knob of ginger to give pumpkin soup a bit of zip. A drizzle of coconut cream or milk to serve and you have the perfect vegan dish.

Old fashioned salmon patties - a wonderful combination of mashed potatoes, canned red salmon and nostalgia.

Sri Lankan fish curry - I love the mingling of spices and tamarind in this dish. A nice change from coconut or tomato based curries.

Fried rhubarb - butter, sugar, spices and heavenly rhubarb. Oh yes!

Lastly, while I’ve not blogged about it before, there will be a vegetable pie or two on rotation. Leftover curry in flaky pastry makes great pasties with a dollop of chutney. Or more laborious concoctions of dense winter vegetables, sautéed with onion and garlic, then held together with some vegetable stock thickened with cornflour – ladled into individual pie dishes and topped with a blanket of pastry (less carbs and fat, no blind baking).

As the weather changes, what recipes are you revisiting?

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