The Devil Eats Chocolate

“That’s very fattening.”

Dropping like a stone out of the clear blue sky, the unsolicited comment stopped me cold. I hadn’t even been aware of the man standing in front of my cart, blocking my slow procession down the aisle. An instinctual flicker of rage flashed before my eyes, as if I had been slapped and called out back for a fight. This? This innocent little chocolate bar I held in my hand, fattening? What had it ever done to deserve such a harsh insult, completely unprovoked?

I looked up quickly, startled by the intrusion. There was only one way to respond, as far as I could see.

Looking this odd stranger straight in the eye, I spoke clearly and calmly.

“Yep.”

Immediately, the decision was made under that advice. Into the cart went the candy, tossed nonchalantly. That was all such a careless exclamation warranted.

Pulling the cart away from the shelf, away from this intruder, an incredulous grin began to spread across my face. What a laughable claim! What a strange thing to interject! Perhaps I should be grateful he’s so deeply concerned with my nutritional well-being. As if “fattening” was a terrible condition that could be contracted and spread like a disease, it was so kind of him to take a stand against the evils of all confectionery the world over, starting with my misinformed purchase.

Taking my plunder outside the store, there was only one way to dispose of such dangerous contraband. Quickly removing the wrapper to dissect the scored rectangles, it broke like the flimsy villain facade it hid behind, shattering into dark brown splinters that glittered inside the foil sheath. Vanquishing the beast, piece after piece succumbed to a sharp bite of the teeth, and a slow melt over the tongue.

May this beast inflict its fattening ways over society no more.

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Clean Kitchen, Clean Start

Spring cleaning is a commonly observed phenomenon that occurs when winter begins to relinquish its icy grip, thawing and slowly awakening all creatures across the still barren tundra. That is, barren aside from the overstuffed caves we’ve been hibernating in. Piled high with the remnants of parties passed, forgotten novelties, and simply neglected staples, we need this collective reminder to take a step back and take stock. However, that alarm bell starts ringing not at the vernal equinox, but the threat of a looming New Year. Inspired by the time-honored custom of “o-souji” (literally, “big cleaning”) in Japan, I find myself knee-deep in Goodwill donations and floor polish while most other people are picking out their perfect cocktail dresses and pre-gaming over the most opulent sparkling beverages.

Disclaimer: I’m not the most tidy person in real life. Mismatched forks and knives spill out of the kitchen drawer, plates of all colors tower in endless stacks on the shelves, and there’s a bottomless pile of new products to review waiting in limbo just off to the side. Years of living alone, being a borderline slob HAS prepared me to know exactly where to draw the line, though, when the weight of this physical clutter shifts to mental baggage. The greatest offender here is found in the pantry, where odds and ends accumulate with no final destination in mind. Shuffling things around only does so much good, so let’s break it down into a few simple steps towards controlling the chaos.

1. Check labels and dates. I frequently violate this rule, squirreling away packaged goods despite the clearly printed numbers that indicate expiration. In most cases, these numbers are relatively arbitrary and can be taken with a grain of salt, but know your limits. A week or two passed the due date? Totally fine. A month or two? Maybe not; always go by a visual and olfactory inspection before diving in, discarding if anything seems remotely off. If you stumble across anything a year or older, those are grounds for instant dismissal. Don’t try to donate this stuff either. The 99 cents lost on those ancient black beans are not worth getting sick over. For more specific guidelines on various foodstuffs, try StillTasty.

Bear in mind that this is only applicable to food. Immediately toss any expired medications you may come across, and be very careful when checking cosmetics as well. Things like nail polish or mascara won’t kill you when they’re past their prime, but they dry out, separate, and don’t work as intended anymore. When in doubt, throw it out.

2. Re-home leftovers. Dozens of depleted, open bags litter the battlefield when I’m done working, making it awfully tempting to tie them up with rubber bands and stuff them back out of sight when the war is won. Inevitably, this leads to broken seals, messy spills, endless duplicates when I accidentally purchase the same things over and over again without checking the surplus. Contain and consolidate loose flours, sugars, dry grains, sprinkles, seaweeds, herbs, and spices into clean glass jars. It helps to be able to see the contents at a glance, while keeping all like ingredients together. Label clearly, including the date it was opened, for easy reference. I find this more helpful than the date on the package since it’s a more obvious reference to how long it’s been exposed to air, becoming more stale by the day.

3. Digitize your stockpile. Take photos of packages before transferring the contents to more long term storage for easy reference and better accountability. In case you forget exactly what’s in that pancake mix, or need to know how much fiber was in that wild rice blend, you can just pull up the picture without all the baggage. It’s also helpful to keep on your phone while you’re shopping to prevent the usual double purchase. You’ll know at a glance that you still have some chickpea flour kicking around somewhere if that picture is on file. I like to keep everything together in one folder on your Dropbox, but you can also make an album on Google Photos, EverNote, and so forth; pick your favorite app and make it work for you.

4. Cut your losses. While working through that excess, know when to let go. If there’s a half a cup or less of flour, for me, that’s a sign to just give up the ghost and toss the rest. It’s really not enough to make anything out of, right? You’d have to buy more, end up with an even greater volume of leftovers, and you’ve just made the problem worse in the end. Start fresh with a new batch altogether if you really do end up needing it.

5. Freeze your assets. Make the most of your edible investments by stashing anything with volatile fats in the freezer to prolong their lifespans. That means whole grains, flours, nuts, and seeds especially should go into the icebox, not the closet. Nothing is forever though and even ice cream needs to get the boot at some point, so check every six months for any off flavors or the tell-tale signs of freezer burn. Minimize all exposed surface to help prevent this, wrapping things tightly with plastic, placing disposable wrap on the surface of all items if they don’t quite fill to the top of their containers. Resist the urge to use plain foil because it can’t form a proper seal, and you can’t see the contents within. Don’t forget: Label, label, label.

6. Share the wealth. I’m one of those people who just has to try everything, no matter how bizarre or obscure. In fact, the more unusual it sounds, the more attractive it becomes. Thus, I end up with hundreds of things that I no longer have any use for (or desire to use) after the first or second taste. Did I really need to buy five pounds of teff flour to make one (failed) batch of injera? Where did all these extra green peppercorns come from? Why on earth do I have seven different containers of protein powder? For items that are perfectly good but have no purpose in the kitchen, offer them up at your next potluck and treat your guests to a little giveaway. There’s a good chance that they’ll have similar curiosities, along with a matching propensity to edible oddities if they’re friends with you. Especially if they’re food bloggers, such a random stroke of luck could kick start the inspiration for a new post (speaking from personal experience, at least!)

7. Take baby steps. You can’t make decades of disorder disappear overnight. Every time you find yourself standing in front of the microwave or the oven, waiting for dinner to be ready, start rifling through the cabinets. Make small goals like cleaning out one drawer each day. Break down the project piece by piece to let the bigger picture develop over time.

New Year’s resolutions typically inspire little more than my disdain, but this time around, I’m fully embracing that annual call to arms. 2019 is officially the year that I pledge to clean up my act… In the kitchen, at least. How about you?

A Whole Latke Love

Contrary to the frequently perpetuated oversimplification, latkes are not potato pancakes. They’re not hash browns nor patties, neither nuggets, tots, nor home fries. “Shredded potato clusters” don’t quite do them justice, but it’s hard to explain such a disarmingly simple dish. Sometimes it easier to describe what they aren’t, rather than what they are- Or ought to be. Strong opinions exist about what makes a proper latke, but in my family, that only means one thing: thin, crispy, silver dollar disks of starchy ribbons, all bound together with a scant handful of matzo meal and a whisper of yellow onion for seasoning. Deeply browned around the edges with a tender interior, some more so than others to appease a diverse crowd, they’re made by the pound and scaled up by tens; never trimmed back, never turned down. Rarely do leftovers survive the main meal, no matter how many buttery Yukon golds press through those sharp spinning grates.

For as long as I can remember, Hanukah has meant the smell of canola oil wafting through the house come midday, long before the menorah comes out or the table is set. My parents work in concert to sling the edible oily miracles well in advance of arriving guests to hide the laborious demands of each painstakingly shaped round. My mom stands guard inside the kitchen, cutting down armies of potatoes to form the raw fuel for this fire. Conveying them in heaping stock pots to my dad, he then dutifully, patiently shallow fries them outside on the grill. Through the bitterly cold winds, freezing rain, hail, snow, and thunderstorms, he faces the elements with steely resolve. There’s no Hanukkah celebration without the latkes, and they’re not about to cook themselves.

I’ll start by assembling my plate daintily, politely spearing two or three small clusters to save enough for the crowd, but after the first bite, proper manners quickly fall by the wayside. Seconds consist of a half sheet tray of the potato gems, shamelessly slathered with enough sour cream to sink a ship, if not lavished with a truly decadent crown of seaweed caviar. From age 3 to 30, if I don’t end the night with grease stains on my shirt and crispy potato shrapnel tangled in my hair, then it isn’t a real holiday dinner with my family.

Latkes aren’t the point here, despite their dominance on festive menus and historical authenticity- Or lack thereof. Latkes are about symbolism, taking on whatever meaning you assign them on this holy, yet entirely ordinary winter day. Latkes are whatever you want them to be, but the only way I’ll ever want them is back east in the house where I grew up, my parents lovingly slinging them from dawn to dusk. No recipe on Earth could ever recreate that kind of experience.

The Dark Ages

When night falls, it plummets like a stone and crash-lands with a resounding thud. Darkness overtakes the sky by brute force, smudging out the sun in an deepening stain marring the clouds. There’s no gentle transition, no ombre sunset nor starry twilight. Like flipping off a light switch, the day is suddenly, starkly over.

Shelter is found in pinpricks across the landscape, by the electric flames of a thousand burning bulbs. They illuminate houses in neat little rows, strung together like bulky Christmas ornaments adorning the city, spilling their garish yellow glow across swaths of concrete. Biting into chunks of impenetrable shadow, clearing away the blackness pouring down all around, each luminous oasis is provides a brief flash of comfort.

Welcome home, they seem to whisper, You’re safe here. Behind glossy window panes, families gripe and groan about daily chores over hot dinners. Couples young and old sit quietly in front of a flickering TV screens, immersed in the latest new scandal or big ticket movie available to stream. Life continues on without missing a beat, unconcerned with the oppressive plague of night that has taken hold just beyond view. The darkness disguises our reality outside, but does not change that constant truth.

Build a Better Blog

Inspiring, overwhelming, humbling, invigorating, enlightening, stunning, and motivating; such a rush of seemingly discordant emotions percolated throughout hours of workshops and sessions during the 2018 WOWsummit. Bringing together bloggers from across the country for a 2-day celebration of this incredible online community, connecting screen names to real faces turned a potentially dry educational experience into a real-life reunion party. Beyond meeting and greeting, the main goal here was to share experiences, build stronger networks, and dispense invaluable advice.

With so much information to absorb packed into each discussion, you could easily fill a book after just one day on the expo floor. Condensing down some of the top tips that resonated with me, my notes are not all-inclusive nor definitive advice for guaranteed success, but bold reminders of how to step up my own game. There’s always more that can be done, whether you’re a complete novice or seasoned veteran, often with little extra effort needed. Want to know what resonated with me most? Here are the top tips that continue echoing through my brain…

Finding Your Voice and Personal Brand:

  • Think about your values
  • Speak from personal experience
  • Understand your purpose, know what you have to offer
  • Establish a mission based on your passion
  • Never lose yourself in branding; a human face is what others can connect with
  • Keep it real, not necessarily polished
  • Check in with your audience to find out what’s important to them
  • Numbers don’t tell the full story; quality over quantity always rules
  • Be honest, vulnerable, relatable
  • Have a focus, define your niche
  • Don’t dilute your brand by partnering with companies that don’t fit with your perspective
  • Define your own success; set goals, personally and professionally
  • Be consistent
  • Engage as much as possible
  • Have a schedule
  • Put yourself out there and reach out to brands you already support
  • Network, create connections with other bloggers

Working with Brands:

  • Make sure it’s a good fit; same audience, same perspective
  • Pay attention to detail (no spelling errors, get names right)
  • Do your research to know what they’ve done in the past
  • Give examples of what you will post, link to past work
  • Be clear about terms, goals
  • Encourage ongoing relationship, ambassadorship
  • Offer many options for collaborations
  • Giveaways, Facebook chats/ask and expert/Twitter party/unboxing
  • Don’t be afraid to negotiate
  • Make real connections; talk on the phone, meet in person if possible. Make it personal.
  • Stay in touch, follow up

To say that this is just a shallow overview would be generous. Anyone who’s attempted to blog for more than a day understands what a complex, crazy venture it is, which is why we’re all our greatest resources. What are your best practices for success? What keeps you blogging? Or, if you haven’t started, what’s stopping you from diving into the pool and joining the blogosphere? Come on, don’t just dip in a toe; jump head-first! There’s nothing to lose, and a whole community to gain.

Smoke and Mirrors

Cascading down the hills and clouding city streets, this was not the usual fog rolling in from the bay. This was smoke, thick and acrid, obscuring our vision, tearing at our throats. Fires burned just beyond eye shot, but the devastation knew no bounds. We all felt the pain of a hundred thousand trees incinerated in an afternoon, reduced to ash and deposited without ceremony upon cars and buildings miles away, like a deathly snow in the summertime blaze.

Escape from this unseen monster is impossible; it hunts you, haunts you through homes and offices. It lingers in the stale air underground across BART tracks. It condenses inside closed windows. It stays within your lungs long after you exhale. It suffocates from the outside in, and the inside out.

This is not a dystopian vision of the future. This living hell is the new normal.

2018 California Wildfires