Guest Blogger Brianna Spahn: Dietary Exploits Abroad
|Eating clean & synthesizing some Vitamin D on a beach in Palma de Mallorca|
I always thought I had a healthy relationship with food – mainly because I always had a big appetite, and satisfied it well, but managed to stay slim without exercising much (or at all). So when I was younger I had little motivation to commit to a healthy plant-based diet. I love(d) pizza. And meaty sandwiches. And tater chips. And chocolate ice cream. I ate a lot of it. Especially in college. I didn’t really gain weight (though surely I’ve had my thicker moments) but some other health issues arose; most obviously with my skin. It wasn’t until my last year of college (2010) that I started making causal connections to my diet. After much research and advice from two Naturopathic Drs and the very wise women in my family, I still don’t freaking know what the exact problem is (a combination of many problems, or many manifestations of one problem, who knows...) but I do know that when I eat a low-carb, plant-based diet and exercise regularly, things improve dramatically.
For over a year now I’ve been struggling to fully commit to the diet. I basically eat like a vegan, no dairy or meat, but a few days a week I have either fish or eggs with one meal. I also cut out all fried/processed foods , caffeine, and all sugar and things that turn to sugar in your body (processed flour products, white rice, white potatoes, tropical fruits, most breads, and most alcohol). Last summer I had been goin’ strong for two or three months, with great results, when in September I moved to Prague to teach English and find myself or whatever. The health and diet situation spiraled pretty quickly there. I get stressed about making new friends, I eat when I’m stressed, and eating and drinking are pretty standard social activities, so every day I was fighting with myself about things like whether I should have a beer, which is a big no-no for my diet but is a big part of Czech culture, far less expensive than other drinks, and particularly delicious here; or whether or not I should go out to dinner with new friends because they’re getting Italian and I don’t feel like explaining why I don’t eat pasta or cheese or meat or bread or drink beer or blah blah blah… Maybe it’s silly and I need to grow up and get over it but I really don’t like having to explain my diet to people I don’t know well. So I stressed myself out. I was always fluctuating between a week or two of commitment and then a few days, even a week, of gluttonous (and glutinous!) over-indulgence; hurting my body and morale. But really, healthy food is available and inexpensive in Prague, so I had no excuse other than peer pressure and lack of willpower. There are a number of “bio” stores with all the standard health food store supplies, and the Vietnamese “potravinys” (grocery stores) on every block have a nice selection of fresh produce and bulk nuts. In the fall, spring, and summer there are farmers markets in nearly every neighborhood. I had a fantastic market a block from my apartment three days a week.
Bread was/is my biggest rival because I love it so much. The mornings are hardest. I’m usually pretty hungry and in a rush and, sadly, my neighborhood smells beautifully of fresh bread, hot sausages, and coffee in the morning. Czechs are really into their bread. It’s honestly their favorite food and a big part of their culture. It’s even the focus of their traditional greeting ceremony, Chléb a sůl (bread and salt: a pretty woman wearing a traditional dress presents the honored guest with a piece of brown bread smeared with pork fat and sprinkled with salt). There are Pekarnas (bakeries) at every corner and they all offer fresh bread with a variety of shapes and textures. Every morning was a battle of wills.
|Sour Dough Cakes??|
The naturopath I saw here in Prague told me that it’d be okay to eat wholemeal sourdough breads, especially if they are made with spelt flour, because it has less gluten, a lower glycemic index, and true sourdough is a nice source of probiotics. Of course most store-bought sourdough doesn’t cut it, so she suggested I start making my own. Thus began my four-month kitchen experiment with sourdough starters. Specific recipes for it vary, but basically to make a starter you put about 5 tablespoons of flour (rye works best, but you can also use spelt or any other) and equal parts warm water in a jar, so that it has the consistency of pancake batter. Stir well, cover the top, and set it in a warm place. Every 12 hours “feed’ the starter with 5 tblspoons flour and warm water, and stir occasionally throughout the day. By the third or fourth day it should begin to activate, forming bubbles and smelling like vinegar. This is a great video all about sourdough starters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpwFM_YRdwc Because the content nearly doubles in size every day, but isn’t ready for bread until it has fermented for at least a week, you have to empty some of the starter every morning. Rather than throw it away, I like to use it to make sourdough spelt pancakes with ground flax and cinnamon, served with sweet tahini (sesame paste, water, and a bit of organic fruit preserves). Take a cup of starter, add half a cup of spelt flour and half cup of water, some baking powder, and stir – I like it to have a thick consistency, but add more or less flour for whatever you prefer. They’re really delicious and my friends, who are not into healthy foods, love them.
But of course whenever I made sourdough bread, it was so delicious I would eat way too much of it and it turned into a bad thing. So for breakfast I’ll usually have tea and oatmeal or quinoa with ground flax, cinnamon, sea salt, some kind of nut or seed, and strawberries or an apple. Blueberries and raspberries are pretty expensive here. If I’m running late, I’ll get my favorite on-the-go “meal” from my corner Potraviny – a fat granny smith apple and a hefty portion of raw cashews.
This is also sometimes my on-the-go lunch. If I am home for lunch, I’ll usually have leftovers from dinner or one of my favorite snacks: tahini with veggie sticks. When it’s replacing a meal I have a big portion. I get raw sesame paste, then add fresh garlic, lemon, and a little salt and water and stir until it gets to be creamy and white. I put tahini on anything and everything – especially sliced apples or carrot and cucumber sticks. When I cook with it and use it as a sauce base, I just add a little more water. It’s great for spicin’ up my other favorite snack: raw slaw. About once a week I’ll make a big batch of coleslaw with raw shredded cabbage and carrots (and sometimes even beets!), finely chopped raw onions and garlic, and either chopped radish or cucumber. I add my thin tahini sauce, some apple cider vinegar, some olive oil, salt n pepper of course, and caraway seeds. I’ll snack on it all week and use it as a salad base for bigger meals.
For dinner I usually choose a main vegetable character and build the meal around that with supporting vegetable roles. Onions and garlic appear in the background of every episode. The stars include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, sweet potato, mushrooms, and sometimes squash if the price is right. I’ll either steam or roast them, with of course onions and garlic, and choose one of my stock flavorings: tamari and fresh ginger, lemon and olive oil, or curry and tahini. Mustard is sometimes mixed into any of those. I often serve it all over greens or some raw veggies, and sometimes throw in rice, beans, lentils, or eggs depending on what else I’ve eaten and how much time and resolve I have to cook that day. I generally just rotate different combinations of these foods and when I’m feeling spicy I’ll add something into the mix, like hot peppers or fresh fennel.
Nonetheless, I still struggled to keep myself from cheating, or as I liked to call it “treating myself” with an ice cream or some crap like that. So as summer approached I felt the need to retreat from the temptations of city life and insert myself into the kind of lifestyle I know I need to be healthy: one with plenty of physical activity and with people who have similar dietary beliefs and practices. I decided to “woof” (www.wwoof.org ) and live/work on organic farms for the summer. After much research on the wwoof.org database, I settled on two farms; one in southern CZ and one in southern Germany, each for about a month.
The Czech farm, in a tiny Moravian village called Prostřední Poříčí (pronounced something like proshtrjjzehdnee porjjzzeetsee), was owned and run by a tough, quirky 75 year old spinster named Lida. She never married in the name of freedom and feminism, used to work as a civil engineer, and moved out to Moravia in the 80s for a lifestyle change after surviving a heart attack. Since then she’s been teaching English to the locals and striving to maintain a yeoman ideal by growing Hokkaido squash for sale and a variety of other vegetables for living. She also has a small orchard of plum trees from which she makes the traditional Czech liquor, Slivovitz. She started every morning with a shot of it “for health.” Her garden also had raspberries and gooseberries (a Czech favorite), and behind the farm was a forest carpeted with wild blueberries, strawberries, edible mushrooms, walnuts, and a few cherry trees. Once or twice a week we would go for a hike and gather delicious forest goods. For any other necessities we traveled to the nearest city, Brno, every Wednesday.
|Foraging for wild foods|
I warned Lida about my diet in my first email to her, and she responded that she is a gluten-free vegetarian so it would be no problem to accommodate me. We made our own breakfasts, so I always made my standard hot quinoa cereal (I brought my own quinoa and flax seeds but she provided the walnuts cinnamon and berries). We worked in the field from 8am-1pm, and then Lida made lunch. Unfortunately lunch was usually pretty starchy – always potatoes or potato dumplings, with Czech-style cabbage and onions, vegetable soup, veggie omelets, or fried parsnips. All fine but for the potatoes…Lida refused to believe that white potatoes could be bad for you, and by lunch I was pretty ravenous so I’d gobble up whatever she made without complaint. After lunch we were free until 6, time mostly spent snoozing, thanks to the soporific effects of hard labor and a heavy meal. This turned out to be a bad combination for my body and I started stressing out. After the siesta I would make dinner, and after dinner we worked for another hour or two in the field. I always tried to make something as full of veggie goodness as possible, which Lida enjoyed, but she also complained that I went through too many vegetables a week and that it was becoming too expensive for her. Oy. An awkward situation. Over the weeks, only three other woofers briefly came and went, so by the end of the month Lida and I were getting on each other’s nerves and I was ready to move on to the next farm.
The German “farm” was called Haselbacher Mühle near a village called Triftern, owned by a German woman named Rita and her English husband Ken, both somewhere in their mid 60s I think. I say “farm” because it’s really just the property of a very old farm which now has gardens and some remnants of an orchard. And about twenty peacocks. We lived in the 400+ year-old house, used the bathroom in the old vine-covered mill which Rita converted into her studio, picked cherries in the cherry/apple/pear orchard, gathered wild raspberries and gooseberries that grew by the stream, scrounged for garden tools and seeds to sow in one of the three barns, and spent the afternoons maintaining the rose and vegetable gardens. She grew a standard kitchen garden that also had large turfs of mint, a sort of wild spinach called “Magenta Spreen”, and sweet potatoes. Rita is a fascinating woman. She’s a working and well-known artist: a silver and goldsmith and architectural sculptor. Her pieces grace the entire property.
|Gooseberries (I think)|
For breakfast, Rita usually made us a nice porridge from ground millet with fresh homemade soy milk (she had a gadget for making it), flax and pumpkin seeds, and cherries from the orchard. I usually made my own lunch and for that I enjoyed a soft boiled egg or two with a pile of greens from the garden. Dinner often involved white potatoes (ugh) and we drank local flower teas with all three meals. But only four days after I arrived, Rita and Ken went on a little trip to England and left me to take care of the gardens and peacocks on my own for the remainder of my stay. It was pretty fun at first…a little creepy being there alone, but also very revealing. Left to my own devices, my self-discipline tends to go out the window. Had a few carb binges. Something I need to work on.
Despite occasional visits from Rita’s lovely daughter Athena, after five days I was feeling a little isolated (also the weather was dreadful)so I cut my stay short, found a cheap flight to Palma de Mallorca and left to find some sun and salt.
There I was low on cash and wanting to “cleanse” so I found a cheap hostel with a kitchen, and for those five days I ate only cucumbers and fruit (watermelon, apples, avocado, apricots, and local orange plums) throughout the morning and afternoon (while sunbathing and swimming, mmm!), then I would have a big bowl of simple raw or steamed veggies with garlic lemon and salt for dinner. I was surprisingly satisfied, not tempted to cheat and get a gelato, and by the end of the five days I was feeling and looking much better than I had all summer. And feeling relieved that I didn’t have to return to Prague without having made some tangible progress. Something I learned in Palma was that it’s much easier for me to stick to the diet if I have fruit or nuts to nibble on throughout the day.
Now I am back in Prague for a few weeks of closure before returning to the States. I haven’t quite made the miraculous physical and psycho/spiritual transformation I was hoping for this summer, but I’ve definitely made some progress. I’ve at least accepted this as a life-long project, so I’ve learned it’s best not to beat myself up too much for moments of transgression.
|Brianna performing in Marat/Sade in Prague|