What do you mean I can’t eat polenta?

Imagine my surprise, to find out that 80% or more of what I had been eating all of my life, I was allergic to…The doctor laughed at me after I got upset over being allergic to corn.  He said, “Most people cry when they find out they can’t have chocolate.  You were upset over polenta!”

Of course, as time went on, and I began to research corn a bit, I discovered that it isn’t just the allergy factor.  Corn, because of the way it’s been genetically modified poses a problem.  Corn is cheap to reproduce, and it’s in EVERYTHING!  Our cattle, chickens, hogs, and even our cats and dogs eat it… and in the form of corn syrup, it’s actually cheaper to use that sugar.

However…cheaper is not always better.  Perhaps the old saying, “You get what you pay for” is true.  Nutritionists claim that obesity, which is currently a rising epidemic in the U.S. has been affected by corn and all of its modifications.  By the way… it’s also affecting the quality of the meat; it’s become fattier.

According to Time Magazine, “From 1972 to 2002, the amount of sugar and syrup produced annually per American grew 21%, from 104 lbs. to 126 lbs., according to the Department of Agriculture. In that same time period, the percentage of syrup sweetener in that total grew from less than 1% to nearly 50%.”

Ouch!

Dr. Mercola would have to agree.  He says, “Pundit George Will has joined the ranks of those who have noticed that the U.S. government’s treatment of corn is wrecking the health of Americans…Rates of chronic diseases like cancer and Type 2 diabetes are much higher today than they were in 1900. Type 2 diabetes is a $100 billion a year consequence of, among other things, obesity related to a corn-based diet. Four of the top 10 causes of American deaths — coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer – have well-established links to diet as well.”

Of course, since I am allergic to corn, this should have no barring on me… Yet, it’s taken years for me to “try” and wean myself off of corn, and to be truthful, I still have not completely accomplished this, but I am working on it, and I have lowered my intake of corn products radically.  The greatest offender is corn tortillas. I live in Southern, California, and they’re hard to avoid. However, I do not eat any product that has high fructose corn syrup, especially with the absolute understanding that this ingredient is wrecking the health in America.

Think about it:  We are eating products that raise our insulin levels at every meal.  When I was eating “Italian,” even though “sugar” was not a common part of my everyday diet, so many things that I ate became sugar when broken down in my body.  For example:  pasta, bread, cereals, rice, polenta, potatoes, etc.  The carbs in some foods (mostly those that contain simple sugars and highly refined grains, such as white flour and white rice) are easily broken down and cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly.  The foods to avoid are mainly empty carbohydrates including all white flour breads, pasta, white rice, anything made with white sugar, corn syrup, or high fructose, processed foods like boxed or prepackaged foods, foods with no or low fiber, fruit juice with added sugar, condiments with added sugar, sugary cereals and regular soda. The two vegetables that have the highest glycemic index are potatoes and corn. Most foods that are packaged like frozen dinners and canned foods have fillers like corn starch, sugar and carbohydrate-based preservatives.

It’s interesting that for the past few years, health practitioners have been encouraging people to eat according to the Glycemic index, which measures the effect that carbohydrate consumption has on blood sugar levels.

After reviewing my eating habits for most of my life, it is no small wonder as to why I’ve developed some health issues, beginning with food allergies.  In an recent article on WebMD, it says, “A food allergy occurs when your immune system responds defensively to a specific food protein that is not harmful to the body…The first time you eat the offending food, your immune system responds by creating specific disease-fighting antibodies (called immunoglobulin E or IgE). When you eat the food again, the IgE antibodies spring into action, releasing large amounts of histamine in an effort to expel the “foreign invader” from your body. Histamine is a powerful chemical that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin or cardiovascular system.”

So, essentially, I compromised my immune system with the foods that I grew up eating, and it’s no wonder that I’m currently rethinking Italian!
“He who enjoys good health is rich, though he knows it not.” Italian Proverb –OH THE IRONY!

Sources:  http://www.ehow.com/about_4603110_foods-diabetic-should-avoid.html

http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/04/04/corn-is-making-the-us-unhealthy.aspx

http://www.webmd.com/allergies/food-allergies

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Spiked punch

As I previously mentioned, my father was an opera conductor.  I’ll never forget one of the after-party’s following the closing of  a production of Madame Butterfly.  There must have been 200 people crammed in our house.  Everyone was still dressed in either evening attire, tuxedoes or black evening gowns, and as always, there were literally tables of food scattered everywhere, an open bar in the living room and a table with a large bowl, filled with spiked punch, various cheeses, meats and assorted appetizers.  Naturally, my father and mother prepared the main course, which was usually lasagna or manicotti’s.  In short, the place was filled with stuffed food and stuffed people!

My younger brother was a bit of a prankster, and was never very enthused with the yuppity party’s that my parents threw.  So, you can well imagine that mischief was always lurking around the corner.  On this particular night, he was bored as usual and my father was in a jovial mood.  The truth be known, one of my parents musician friends had definitely been dipping into the spiked punch one too many times.  Actually, he was probably hitting the open bar, and using the spiked punch as a chaser for the food.  In short, he was plowed.  So, my brother decided to practice his pitch (he was a left-handed baseball pitcher) using strawberries as the ball and the back of this guys bald head as the target.  Fire 1, fire 2, fire 3…he never knew what hit him.  It got worse.  Instead of my father scolding my brother, he was laughing and saying…”What in the heck are you doing?  He looks like a strawberry shortcake!”  So, my brother proceeded to go to the refrigerator, pull-out a can of whipped cream, and he walked over to this guy, hugged him and while they were having a chat, he sprayed the whip cream in his tuxedo pocket without this guy ever even knowing.  🙂 About five minutes later, the man put his hands in his pockets and yelled out,  “Good God!  What is this?”  I won’t begin to tell you how much my father, brother, sister and I laughed over this.  Since the man was so intoxicated, he never did put the pieces together, and we all had a good laugh looking at this human strawberry shortcake.

Back to the FOOD:

So, while this was a special event, once again, I was eating foods that were high in fat, carb-driven, loaded with dairy, and undoubtedly not gluten-free or sugar-free.  Since I didn’t normally gravitate toward the dessert table, I was under the impression that I was eating healthy.  I couldn’t have been more mislead.

Once again, I am more convinced than ever that my lifestyle growing up helped pave the way for some of the health issues that I’ve been dealing with off an on for the last 20 years.  It’s been a long road.  I’ve not always wanted to surrender what’s been familiar to me, but after changing my ways and eating organic, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free, I’m feeling so much better.  It’s no wonder that I’m rethinking Italian!

Stuffed and puffy

“The wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings. Let food be your medicine.” – Hippocrates

When I was around 36, I began to have a lot of hormone-related issues, in fact, I skipped my menstrual cycle for 6 months–the doctor thought it might be a false pregnancy. Instead of giving birth after 9 months, I had gained nearly 90 lbs, and suffered from serious edema.  My diet was not any different.  I was still having an “Italian” moment, eating predominately pastas, salads, and beef, lamb, chicken or fish.  Somehow, I had figured out that bread was probably not a good idea for me, so I didn’t eat much bread, but pasta was a popular mainstay.  Not only in my diet, but it was being pushed in the health/diet industry at that time.  All of the health-gurus seemed to be on a pasta agenda, which only furthered my idea that I was eating healthy.  I walked about 4 times a week, yet I continued to blow up like a balloon.  It wasn’t just weight gain either; I didn’t have the typical sagging, ripply cellulite fat, but I looked stuffed and puffy.  My traditional doctor offered a hard-hit of progesterone, which contributed largely to my weight gain.  At that time, I didn’t realize that it is basically a steroid. In addition, I was tired all the time, which didn’t work well since I had 2 children that had very active schedules.  I felt like I was slipping down a slippery slope quickly, and I knew something had to be done.

My mother came to visit and she hadn’t seen me in about 7 or 8 months.  When she saw how much weight I had gained, how puffy I looked, and got a glimpse of the skin rashes I was dealing with, she insisted that I find a specialist.  I found an alternative doctor who was truly genius, and his influence was pivotal in opening my eyes to the things we eat.  He began his medical journey as a research psychiatrist, and found himself more interested in body chemistry as related to weight gain and allergy issues, so he went back to medical school and became an allergist.  After completing his training, he worked in the field for a brief time, but returned to school to study nutrition and holistic health.  It’s no secret that medical school students are not required to take more than one class on nutrition.  He shared with me that he felt incompetent as an allergist with little to no “real” knowledge of nutrition and the foods we eat.” So, in short, this physician was extremely well-rounded.  He was qualified as an M.D., but also as a nutritionist and holistic doctor.

On my first visit with Dr. Philip Taylor, he sat me down, took out a notepad and literally interviewed me for an hour.  He asked me questions about my childhood, what we ate, about my cravings, my marriage (I thought, “How odd…”), my current symptoms, and just about anything you could imagine. After an hour, he put his pen down, looked up at me and said.  “You’re a mess, and you also have chronic food allergies.”  I remember sitting there thinking, “Who is this guy?  I mean he didn’t even examine me.” He then asked me to step into his exam room, where we would begin food allergy testing.  He said, “I don’t believe in doing scratch tests for food allergies. Those work wonders if you have environmental allergies, but since food is ingested, I like to inject a little of the food under your skin to see what happens.”  Oh great.  I heard the word, “Inject,” and knew this was not going to be fun.  I’m not a fan of needles. Nearly everything he tested me for I reacted to, and wheat and dairy were the worst.  I didn’t just have a skin reaction, my arm blew up and I developed a migraine within about 20 minutes.  NOT a good sign.

The entire process took about 3 months, but at the end I was told about all of the things I could no longer eat.  In some respects I was relieved, but also a bit pissed off.  I felt somewhat cursed.  Imagine being an Italian with the food heritage I’ve had, only to find out that 90% of what I ate growing up contributed to my health issues. I couldn’t just go on a diet, avoid them for a season and then go back to eating the same foods.  Dr. Taylor opened my eyes to the fact that I needed to accept a permanent lifestyle change or I would continue to have these kinds of issues if I didn’t, and they would only get worse.  Change was imminent.

…Yet still…the road has not been easy.

“What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others”
– Lucretius. 95-55 B. C.

Bonded by tradition

Part of the beauty of the Italian people is there sense of abandonment to life. When visiting Italy for the first time, I felt near-drunk on the exuberance of the people on the streets, in the cafés, or watching people chatter in the piazzas.  Like animated characters in a film, everyone seemed to have a story that was bigger than life.  Even more fascinating though, was my connection to the people and the lifestyle in Italy.  It felt like I was among family.

Italian’s have a deep connection to food.  It is one of the cornerstones of Italian culture.  No matter how frenzied life becomes, there is nothing more important than gathering together around a meal–even if only sharing an espresso, it is the connector for life. Every city and town has markets where people shop for fresh fruit, meat, vegetables and fish.  If one doesn’t find what they need with the food vendors, there are also supermarkets and small shops specializing in one type of food.  Italians find great pleasure in sitting at a table, whether at home, in a restaurante, or in a café and sharing a meal together.  Everything around you slows down to a glacial speed, while the food is being enjoyed.  It is a moment to savor life!

My parents were always on the go.  My mother, a concert violinist and music professor always had something going on.  My father was equally busy.  He was an opera conductor, music arranger and composer, and actually didn’t open his restaurant until I was in my late teens.  Life in our household was filled with two things:  Music and food.  Yet, in  the midst of so much busyness, they still found time to gather the troupes and enjoy cuisine together.

Holiday’s were out of control.  My parents had an over-sized music studio that housed not only a grand piano, a cello, several violins and a flute, but a pool table.  The pool table was a lot of fun, but it was functional as well.  About four days before Easter, my father would line up several huge pots in the kitchen and make bucket-loads of sauce.  The process began something like this:  Using large beef neck bones, he would brown the meat in about ¼ cup of olive oil, adding seasonings (marjoram, oregano, basil, rosemary and anise or fennel and salt and pepper) and about 5-6 fresh cloves of crushed garlic to the mix.  When the meat was browned, and covered with the seasonings, he would add several cans of Progresso (it had to be Progresso) canned tomatoes in puree and several cans of puree, about ¾ cup of red wine and ½ cup of fresh (finely-grated) romano cheese.  He would then fill the water to the brim and the cooking process began!  It was an all-day adventure.  I won’t even begin to tell discuss the mess he made.  Mamma mia!

Once the sauce was underway, he spent 2 solid days rolling out homemade ravioli that were the size of a clutch purse!  They were truly remarkable, and undeniably calorie-loaded. He would lay out bed linens on our pool table and literally layer ravioli on the table, filling it from side-to-side, and stacking at least 2-3 layers.  I think he made around 300 raviolis for family and friends.

Easter morning was always a scene, because my dad was the choir director at the Catholic cathedral and my mother played the organ.  We rose early, got dressed in our Sunday finest and went to mass. Admittedly, that was never the fun part of Easter Sunday for me.  It was the food aftermath, which began with an Easter egg hunt in the backyard with family and friends.  While my father was in the kitchen cooking the ravioli’s, and tending a roasting lamb, the kids (and my mom) were running amuck outside, gathering every piece of candy we could find.  Keep in mind that desserts were not normally a part of our diet, so Easter-egg hunts were epic adventures.

The table was prepared with absolute care. From one platter of food to the next, there was little space for much else.  The only real challenge was that our stomachs couldn’t possibly hold that much food, and within the first 10 minutes of eating, we were as stuffed as the raviolis that were prepared.

Holiday meals were not just about sharing food and wine together, but they were also the stage for sharing one family story after another.  If our sides didn’t ache from all of the food we devoured, guaranteed they nearly popped from laughter.

I am sure most Italian’s would relate to this scenario.  The connection with food, family life, and the abandonment to it is what makes life full.  It is not just about eating; it’s about tradition.  We don’t just have a relationship with the food, but an indissoluble bond.

New Beginnings

I need another blog like I need a hole in my head, however…  I am Italian and I want to talk about food–the two seem to go hand-in-hand!

I am an American Italian woman in my mid-fifties who loves to cook.  My father’s family are all from Italy.  Worse still, my father owned an Italian restaurant, which only added more calories into the mix.  That being said, you can well-imagine our meals at home when I was growing up.  It went something like this:

Breakfast:  Italian eggs (loose scrambled eggs, leftover homemade pasta sauce, crushed garlic, fresh basil, fresh oregano and fennel seed, grated provolone cheese, grated romano cheese, and salt and pepper), sour bread toast, milk or orange juice, fresh fruit.  Occasionally we would have cereal, but not that often.

Lunch:  Varied somewhere between pasta, pizza or Italian sub sandwiches, with a tall glass of milk (of course it was for our “bones”).

Dinner:  Don’t even get me started… Sirloin or Filet Minion (stuffed with prosciutto, crushed garlic, mushrooms, oregano, provolone cheese, and various seasonings, then rubbed with fresh garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper), pasta (the pasta was our potato), garlic bread, green salad, and fruit for dessert.  There were also the lasagna or homemade pizza and ravioli moments, and my father’s famous deep fried calzones covered with sauce, and fresh grated romano cheese.

I was very active growing up, in fact, I danced ballet for 22 years, played on a woman’s tennis league, swam almost daily during the summer months, and enjoyed snow skiing and hiking on a regular basis.  Whatever crazy calories I consumed at home, I burned off because of my active lifestyle.

Once I was married and began a family of my own, I carried on the cooking tradition with my own family.  My children’s friends always wanted to spend the night at our house, and it’s clear why:  There was always a huge pot of homemade sauce on the stove, cookies in the oven, and a fully loaded refrigerator and pantry.  In short, we ate well…very, very well.

By the time I hit my late thirties, I began to have some health issues.  Weight gain (gee, I wonder why), chronic rashes, that would go away for a season and then return with a greater vengeance. Finally in my mid-forties, I developed Wilson’s Thyroid Syndrome, which is a quirky thyroid disorder that affects the T-3, and  eventually controls your ability to burn food.  Hence, to my horror,  my weight began to accelerate.

I was never an over-eater per say, but my diet was meat and carb-driven.  In addition, I was never a big dessert lover.  In fact, growing up we only ate desserts during the holiday’s, at special events, or for someone’s birthday.  Yet, with the combination of thyroid issues, and the rashes (which turned out to be related to food allergies), I began to blow-up like a balloon.  I wasn’t eating sugar, but my diet was primarily carb-driven, which ultimately turns into sugar.

…and I thought we ate so healthy…

Over the years, this began to worsen, and finally when I was just turning 50, I sought out alternative medical help, because traditional medicine was providing no “real” solutions.  I was given new diets, diet drinks (loaded with sugar), hormones, prednisone for the rashes, but only continued in a yo-yo cycle of ill-health and weight gain.  My new doctor started with food allergy testing.  It was quite a blow to find out that I am allergic to: wheat, rye, corn, sugar cane, chocolate, coffee bean, all dairy (except goat’s milk), MSG.(that was no loss), beef and brewer’s yeast.  Naturally, my response to all of this was, “What the heck is left for me to eat?”

That question began a journey that I am still on. I have had to re-think and re-learn eating, and cooking while being open to change.  It’s not easy for a woman my age to do, especially with my heritage and my connection to gourmet Italian foods.

However… I am doing it, little-by-little, step by step, and I am learning how to prepare healthy, organic, vegetable-based foods, that taste AMAZING! Who says healthy has to taste bad?  Just because it’s vegan or vegetarian, doesn’t mean you should feel like mooing after sitting down to dinner.

So, here I am…writing another blog, talking about food and sharing my journey.  As an Italian food aficionada–who loves and embraces life, I invite you to join me!

“Laugh as much as you breathe and love as long as you live!” Quest’ la vita il gioire ~ This is the life and the joy. ♥