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Awake at the Whisk: Introduction

Monday, July 28, 2008



Look, Mom! I’m on the Internet!
For anyone who isn’t my mom, allow me to introduce myself (I’m Amber!) and my new blog: Awake at the Whisk.

Born Baker
I don’t believe I was born with a whisk in my hand, but shortly thereafter, my mom—and aunt and grandma and great grandma—made sure I knew how to use one. I was sous chef and taste-tester first, painting food-colored egg wash over sugar cookie cutouts, or dipping fingers into large vats of whipped frosting at my aunt’s bakery for “quality control.”

Later, I graduated to My First Baking Book by Rena Coyle, baking Power Bars, Baked Apple Pancakes and her version of cream puffs—a book I could bake from all by myself. Soon enough, I was helping Mom with dinner, chopping lettuce for taco night, or stirring hot pots of chili. In summer, I would help Mom and Dad can tomatoes, applesauce, and at least three flavors of jam from fruits picked in our yard. I was always free to roam the yard, eating raspberries right from the bush, plucking grapes from the vine, or dipping thick stalks of ruby red rhubarb into sugar to munch raw. I was also in charge of less-appealing tasks, like loading my wagon with rotten pears that had fallen to the ground (so Dad could later haul them away).

About once a year, my uncle would visit from out of state. During his visits, Mom made a big deal to remove meat from our meals. Our uncle was—gasp!—a “vegetarian.” (Did I mention we lived in rural Illinois in those days?) Mom seemed to think it was a pretty cool thing to be, and I secretly wished I had the willpower to commit to this lifestyle. My mom explained my uncle’s thoughts about a small planet with limited resources, and a human race that was gobbling these resources up far too quickly. She told me how meat was produced using grain that was inedible to humans, yet people were starving in Ethiopia a half world away. But when our uncle left, we returned promptly to eating cheese burgers on the grill.

Have Whisk, Will Travel
At the age of 16, I left America to live for one year as an exchange student in Denmark—the land of the boiled potato and the chocolate-covered marshmallow—a country of 5 million people and 10 million pigs. By Thanksgiving, I had eaten my share of sausages and was ready to share a real, American meal with my host family. I was allowed to stay home from school to prepare the festivities: turkey, mashed potatoes, jell-o, cranberries, pumpkin pie, and apple pie. Mom and Grandma sent pages of recipes, boxes of jell-o mix, and cans of pumpkin. All by myself, I prepared my first-ever Thanksgiving for a houseful of Danes, who graciously gobbled up the food—all except the pumpkin pie. (More for me!)

About 30 extra pounds into my pork-and-potato-filled year, I came up with “the lie” that would change the course of my life forever. I was sick of eating the same basic meal every day: boiled potatoes and some form of pork. It was considered rude to trim the fat from your ham and leave it on your plate: in Denmark, they ate it. So, I told my host parents that I was a Methodist (a religion with which they were unfamiliar) and that we were not allowed to eat meat during that part of the year—with the exception of fish. My fib worked! Vegetables entered my life! Sausages left it! Despite the added burden I created for my loving host families (my apologies!), fifteen years later a vegetarian diet remains a firm part of my life. (I still eat fish.)

I Don’t Know What to Feed a Vegetarian
Returning to high school in Illinois, folks around me didn’t quite know what to think, and they sure as shine-ola didn’t know what to feed me. Cheese pizza every night! Cheese sandwiches! Cheese nachos! A bowl of cereal?

When I went away to college, I was fed more of the same in the dorms: melted cheese in all its forms of glory. But I was also fed something healthy: knowledge. My understanding of mercury in the oceans, pesticides in our rivers, and global hunger expanded. My sister, who worked at an organic restaurant, explained the need to buy organic groceries, and why it was important even if I was living on a student’s meager wages.

When I finally got an apartment, I bought dozens of plastic pots at the dollar store and filled them with seedlings on the porch of my studio apartment. Fresh basil! Bell peppers! Tomatoes! Just like the garden of my youth—only much smaller. I began to cook for myself—not the recipes of my youth (most of which contained hamburger in some form or another), but new, meatless versions—with extra veggies.

I met a guy who was equally dismayed about the state of the world’s water, and was working to do something about it. Like me, he was not a fan of red meat, but a lover of veggies. I lured him deeper into my life by cooking something new for dinner every night and inviting him over. Homemade pesto pizza, peach salsa, and garlicky hummus filled our lives, and next thing I knew, we had finished school and were moving out West together.

My Food Philosophy
Now, we live in California, happily married. Almost every day is a new culinary adventure (or misadventure) at home in our kitchen or garden. I shop every week religiously at the farmers market. I buy organic food whenever possible, despite the growing cost of groceries. I try to make local and seasonal recipes. We try to grow foods we like in our own garden—and share extras with our neighbors. Pretty soon, we’re also going to start our first compost pile. I’m trying to be as much a locavore now as I am a vegetarian. I’m not perfect, but I’m trying.

But most of all, I focus on making food that tastes great and is good for us. I love baking muffins and cakes that are lighter on fats and sugars, but always high on flavor. I’m a huge fan of spices, fresh herbs, or heat in my food. I’m addicted to reading just about every book and magazine devoted to food. My favorites: Harvest for Hope by Jane Goodall and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

Awake at the Whisk reflects my attempt to be a conscious eater, baker, cook, and consumer. Sometimes that means making an amazing dessert to satisfy my sweet tooth, using the best ingredients I can find—ingredients that are organic, local and seasonal whenever possible—and packed with flavor.

It might also mean putting my garden vegetables to use in new, creative ways when the 20th cucumber rears its head at me from under the vine.

It means eating healthfully. I would not feel proud to call myself a “friend” if I bake someone a birthday cake loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol. Whole grains, nuts, fruits and veggies fill my recipes and kitchen cupboards. (So does sugar, I’ll admit. But at least it’s organic.)

It also means making smart choices when I go out to eat—whenever possible. Thankfully, more and more restaurants are catching on to the “trend” of living a conscious food life and are offering local, seasonal, organic menus. I heart these restaurants!

And for me, it always means a vegetarian diet, awake to the needs of the precious planet we inhabit, ensuring its sustainable future for the kids and future grandkids of our species.

Importantly, “Awake at the Whisk” means being alive and enjoying the vast world of food that is at our finger tips! When I travel, I love finding local eats and trying new cuisine. I might buy a new spice to try at home, or indulge myself at a local bakery. If all this isn’t fun, then what’s the point?!

Whether it’s baking, growing, or tasting something new, I will always remain Awake at the Whisk!

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I'm eager to see more posts and find some good recipe ideas (as always). What a nice, fresh writer! Best of luck going forward.
Wendy, NYC
Shen--Many thanks for your wonderful compliment. Made my day! Thanks for reading. :) --Amber

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