Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Book Review: Busy, Stressed, and Food-Obsessed

This piece originally appeared in betterafter50.com
Way back when, we were young moms, balancing a kid or two (or more) on one hand, and a household and perhaps a job on the other. Our lives were hectic and we were constantly in motion running from one activity, meeting, obligation to another. There were many times we grabbed what we could and ate on the go or from off our kids’ plates.
Now that we’ve reached a “certain age” and things may have calmed down a bit more–our kids are older and possibly out of the house, and we have some more time to focus on ourselves and our own well-being–that doesn’t mean we are any less stressed internally and that our eating habits have changed for the better.

In “Busy, Stressed, and Food Obsessed!” author Lisa Lewtan sets out to help us take a hard look at the lives we lead and how to make the adjustments needed in which to create a thriving, nourishing environment. It’s not a “diet book” in the traditional sense, but it does guide us on how to approach our diets in a sane and healthful manner. It’s not really a “relationship book” in the classic sense of that genre..but then again, it is loaded with strategies on how to better handle our often very complicated relationship with food. And it’s not really a “how to book,” but the chapters are jam-packed with practical advice about how to “finally figure out what your body needs to thrive.”

“The food you eat is one of the best health investments you can make.”

I approached this book as a “mere spectator,” someone who did not have any issues with food, unlike author Lewtan, a certified health coach, who admits very early on to at one time being all of the things her title addresses: Busy, stressed, and food obsessed. When she quite literally almost ran herself into the ground, she pulled herself together and began to scrutinize her lifestyle and dissect her habits, piece by piece,Lisa Lewtan book cover 
in order to figure out just what was causing her to crash and burn. This detective work and her method of self-care have led her to a more calm, stable…and healthy life. Reading about her own challenges encouraged me to take an honest appraisal of my own habits—both good and bad. (And yes, this “mere spectator” finally admitted to herself that the handful of chocolate chips she has with her morning coffee each day borders on obsession, and probably has something to do with the afternoon stomachache.)

Lisa’s methods in spurring the reader on to action involve using powerful verbs such as “investigate,” “alleviate,” and “eliminate.” In page after page we begin to learn how interdependent we are with the foods we eat, and how that relationship can be a vey toxic one. She helps us weed out the “bad” and weed in the “good,” with help being the operative word. There are no lectures as she puts us in the driver’s seat so that ultimately, the conclusions we arrive at are our own.

Identify your habits, and why you eat…Are you hungry? Bored? Happy? Sad?
Think about what you eat…Are there foods that “trigger” your patterns?
How does what you eat make you feel? Full? Depressed? Sick to your stomach? Guilty?
Judgment is thrown out the window and mindfulness is brought in. Being mindful about what we eat and why doesn’t mean being obsessive.  In fact, our obsession is what is leading so many of us on the path to ruin. Helpful charts and assignments to assist us on a better path, the one to reconnecting with our bodies, are included in every chapter. This is not a reference book filled with scientific terminology about carbs and protein, and in no way does Lewtan advocate one “diet” over another. What is provided is encouragement, with a little humor thrown in for good measure. Dancing, meditation, everything that may help you get in touch with your emotions and forge a connection with your true inner self are recommended…even encouraged. 
The author doesn’t expect miracles, and she does account for setbacks. Her message is “Stop being so hard on yourself, just be honest.” She inspires us in her mission to rid the world of the over-stressed crazy-woman. We believe her–even when she says you can maintain a healthy lifestyle while allowing yourself to stray every once in a while. The main thing is to “ditch the inner critic bitch.” If by the end of this book, you have learned how to stand up to that “bitch” in your mind, then Lewtan’s job has been done.

“Life is short and being too restrictive is not fun or particularly mentally healthy.”

The Accidental Cruiser: A Trip Through Bordeaux on a Viking Riverboat

I am "cruise liner-phobic"—I have never been on one, I’ve got a fear of the water and I get seasick. But if you had seen me just a few weeks ago, sitting on the balcony outside my room on the Viking Forseti,enjoying the view of the water and the sound of it lapping against the sides of the boat, you would have thought I was the poster girl for river cruising.
I’ve never really had the inclination to get past my cruise phobia. The thought of being on a huge floating city bobbing up and down in the middle of nowhere without seeing even a slip of land for miles and miles makes my stomach turn even as I type the words. I have never been enticed by on-board theaters, nightly Vegas-like shows or pools with waterfalls that would overwhelm Poseidon that most large ships boast about.(I can see all you cruise lovers shaking your heads and rolling your eyes, but I am my father’s daughter.Yes, him being the big burly guy who almost died of seasickness when he, my mom and my older sister sailed to this country many years ago. I keep that secret close to my vest, and if that vest is a nice, puffy orange one with straps that fit around your middle, even better.

I am "cruise liner-phobic"—I have never been on one, I’ve got a fear of the water and I get seasick. But if you had seen me just a few weeks ago, sitting on the balcony outside my room on the Viking Forseti,enjoying the view of the water and the sound of it lapping against the sides of the boat, you would have thought I was the poster girl for river cruising.

When I heard that Viking River Cruises don’t offer all those carnival-like bells and whistles that so many of my cruise-loving friends adore, I considered “thinking” about it. When I heard that cruising on a river is nothing like cruising out on the ocean (hint, no bumps and land is never too far away), I was game. And I must admit, even Dad would have a hard time passing up a relaxing trip on a longship, gliding down the nice, calm Garonne, Gironde, and Dordogne rivers, to and from the city of Bordeaux and the wine region that is home to some of the most famous wine producers in the world such as Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Sauternes, and Margaux. Without much "arm-twisting, my friend Kathy agreed to join me, and our adventure on Viking’s Chateaux, Rivers & Wine cruise began.
Viking Forseti Atrium
Viking Forseti Atrium
Our first glimpse of Bordeaux was late at night, when we were driven through what looked like a lovely, quaint town, its trees drenched with white Christmas lights that appeared to be dripping from their boughs. In the daylight, the “quaint town” of Bordeaux showed its true personality: An elegant city, not unlike Paris, having been transformed after undergoing massive renovations in the late 1990s. A tour past magnificent architecture, open-air food markets brimming with local produce, regional seafood (mussels and oysters), and the ever-present signature pastry, caneles, could be done on foot or by tour bus, as it was one of the trip's included excursions. Kathy and I chose to walk that day, and our meanderings took us to some antique flea markets and the well-known chocolate shop, Maison Larnicol, where its chocolate Christmas ornaments had us in awe.
St. Louis des Chartrons - Bordeaux
St. Louis des Chartrons
Extra excursions were also part of the trip, and on one of those, Kathy and I spent the morning in the Dordogne, learning about the art of truffle hunting on the farm of “The Trufflle Master” himself, Edouard Aynaud, and his trained sniffer, Farrah the border collie. After some digging and scratching (mostly by Farrah), Kathy even found some truffles herself. (Henceforth, she will be known as “The Truffle Queen of Long Beach, California.”) A five-course, truffle-laden lunch (including ice cream with truffle caramel sauce which was surprisingly delicious), prepared by the owner’s wife as we sat in kitchen of their 17th-century stone farmhouse was included.
It’s only natural that this wine-centric trip attracted many wine enthusiasts of all ages, but the average age of the entire group seemed to be hovering around sixty-five. In addition to the wine-oriented excursions, additional ones to a cognac producer and an oyster farm appealed the the non-wine lovers. For those who were not up for the many walking tours, the long bus trips through beautiful countryside and vineyards galore, and past stately medieval chateaux were quite adequate.
Viking River Cruise
The Viking Forseti offered a welcome respite at the end of each day’s journeys. The central atrium was light-filled and we could see how inviting the outdoor decks could be in warmer weather. Our stateroom, although not overly spacious, was certainly roomy enough for the two of us, and view beyond the sliding glass doors leading to our balcony gave it a very open feel. Lovely for all while cruising, but depending upon where your room was when the boat docked, you could be looking at concrete and pylons, so that was something to consider. Staterooms with river views, French Balcony staterooms, and true suites were also on board.
Meals on the boat were always delicious, and quite often featured specialties of the region. There were options available for meat eaters and vegetarians alike. More formal meals were served in the dining room and a buffet, which we preferred for lunch, was offered in the lounge. Breakfast was also a buffet that included made-to-order omelets. Across the board, the staff was friendly, attentive, and focused on making sure we were all comfortable and satisfied.
Chocolate ornaments from Maison Larnicol
Chocolate ornaments from Maison Larnicol
Because there were no "distractions" on board, many guests took the time to read, rest, and chat. As one of the cruise leaders stated, unlike their ocean liners, Viking’s river boats are not to be thought of as destinations—the historical sites and cities are the true attractions. Bottom line, if you’re looking for fun, activity, and adventure…on a ship, these cruises are not necessarily for you. But if you are seeking rest and relaxation with some good food, interesting people, and lots of history thrown in, get on board!

This post originally appeared in Betterafter50.com
I was compensated for my review, but my opinions, as always, are my own.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Charoset Strudel for Passover

At first mention of the news that Ben & Jerry’s was now selling a Charoset-flavored Ice Cream in Israel, the idea sounded a little like a marketing ploy to me. But after giving it some thought, I Passover Dessertsrealized that, while being pretty out of the box, Charoset-flavored “anything” is not so far-fetched.

...apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and some sort of sweetener like honey.” And, as my mom would say, “What could be bad?”

One of the symbolic foods on the Passover Seder plate, this fruit and nut mixture symbolizes the mortar the Jews used to build the pyramids while they were slaves in Egypt. Depending on where your ancestors were from, your Charoset might be a variation on the theme, but according to Bustle, “the Ben and Jerry’s flavor seems to be based on the Ashekanzi or Eastern European version made from apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and some sort of sweetener like honey.” And, as my mom would say, “What could be bad?”

The combo of apples, walnuts, and cinnamon is indeed, quite traditional. Frankly, if Ben & Jerry had called their creation “Apple Pie,” and offered it around Thanksgiving time, no one would have batted an eye.

I thus began to think of all the dishes one could make while using Charoset as a base—sandwich cookies, tarts, rugelach, and I even found a charoset chicken salad and a brisket recipe that both sounded wonderful. Charoset muesli (kosher for Passover, of course), Charoset pancakes, muffins….

Of course, one could get carried away, but I played it safe and created a Charoset Strudel.  I retained the traditional mixture of chopped apples and walnuts (but you could use pears and pistachios), and took a page from the book of the Sephardic Jews who favor a few more add-ins, such as dried apricots and dates, and incorporated them as well. The melange of fruits and nuts is often moistened with sweet wine, but one could just as easily use apple juice or apricot nectar.

The texture is more cooke-like than filo-dough strudel, but it is tasty and homey; something perhaps a Jewish grandma might make.

The strudel dough recipe is an adaptation from a similar one by pastry chef Marcy Goldman. The texture is more cooke-like than filo-dough strudel, but it is tasty and homey; something perhaps a Jewish grandma might make. And if your grandma is no longer at your Seder table, this strudel will definitely bring her there in spirit.

Passover Charoset Strudel
1/2c. vegetable oil
1/2c. brown sugar
insides of a scraped vanilla bean
1/4 tsp. salt
2 eggs
2-4 Tbsp. apple juice
1 1/4c. potato starch
1/2c. matzoh cake meal
1/2c. matzoh meal
1/2c. sweetened coconut
1c. walnuts, light toasted and coarsely ground
1/4c. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 apples, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
1/2c. dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1/2c. dates, coarsely chopped
1/4c. preserves, any flavor
1/2 Tbsp. matzoh meal
Passover Powdered Sugar :
1/3c. granulated sugar
1/2tsp. potato starch
Grind together in an electric coffee/spice grinder until powdery
Make dough: In the bowl of a n electric stand mixer, mix together oil, brown sugar, vanilla bean scrapings, salt, eggs, and most of the apple juice. Stir in the potato starch matzoh cake meal, and matzoh meal and mix  together on low, adding additional apple juice to form a soft, rollable dough. All ow dough to rest for 10 to 15 minutes. (Moisten again w/a tad more juice, if necessary.) Divide the dough in half.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Roll out dough half between two sheets of waxed paper until each becomes a very thin 5 by 10-inch rectangle.
Make Filling: Mix all ingredients in a food processor until mixture resembles a coarse paste. Spread half the filling over the dough. Lightly sift the 1/2 tablespoon of matzoh meal over filling. Using the bottom sheet of waxed paper as an aid, roll up the dough into a log. Brush the top with beaten egg and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Repeat with the remaining dough, filling, and topping.

Transfer the logs to prepared baking sheet and score them into 1-inch sections. Bake until lightly golden , about 35 minutes. Cool, and sift approximately 2 tablespoons Passover Powdered Sugar over the tops. Then, using a very sharp knife, cut the scored sections into slices. (Rolls may be frozen and then cut right before serving.)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Alice Medrich's Best Cocoa Brownies (For the Big Game)

Not counting tomorrow’s game, there have been 48 Super Bowls. That means 48 Super Bowl parties…and A LOT of chili! With each year, the menus at the parties I’ve attended have gotten more and more elaborate and over the top. This year, I say, “Enough with the fancy schmancy party food!” Back to the “basics” for me tomorrow—good, easy to manage food—with a little bit of a twist. 

“Enough with the fancy schmancy party food!” 

These brownies from Alice Medrich are just what I’m talking about. There’s no dark, 72% chocolate called for in this recipe—no melting, no fuss. They are the quintessential brownie—rich, fudgy—perfect for any game day. Toss in a handful of coarsely chopped nuts of chocolate chips if you must. A touch of cayenne and paprika adds a bit of heat that you won’t notice until you’ve finished your first bite, because on a cold day in February, everyone could use a little bit of heat.

Makes 16 to 25 brownies
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet via Sassy Radish

10 tablespoons (140 grams) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (250 grams) granulated sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (105 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (start with less to see if you like the amount of heat)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cold large eggs
1/2 cup (63 grams) all-purpose flour
2/3c. walnuts or pecan, coarsely broken into pieces
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Line an 8″ square pan with parchment paper so that there is an overhang on two sides.

Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, paprika, cayenne, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot. 

Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the vanilla, Once the batter looks shiny and well-blended, stir in the flour until no streaks remain. Vigorously beat the batter for 40 strokes. Stir in the nuts if using. Spread the batter evenly into the pan. Sprinkle the sea salt lightly over the top.

Bake until a toothpick in the middle comes out slightly moist with batter, 20 to 25 minutes Remove and let cool completely before lifting out of the pan and transferring to a cutting surface. Cut to your desired size.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Can Winter Clothing Be Functional AND Fashionable Too?

Winter is a rather impersonal season. (At least in the colder climates, it is.) When the temperatures plummet, so too do our spirits. And our high hopes that by some miracle this year will be warmer than the last are broken like icicles falling from the eaves. We find ourselves running from place to place swathed from head to toe in whatever bulky item we can dig out of our closets. The primary goal on days such as those is to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, with no distractions. There is little desire to stop and smell the metaphoric roses or chat with a friend we meet on the street by happenstance. The fact is, everyone is so bundled up that we would be hard-pressed to even recognize a friend on the street.

Unless the cruel winds of winter are blowing uncontrollably and/or are accompanied by a barrage of sleety pellets, I don’t mind the cold temps. (As all my friends from California where I lived for twenty-five years roll their eyes.) My philosophy mirrors the old Scandinavian axiom that advises there is no such thing as “bad weather,” just “the wrong clothing.”  Alas, the right clothing will keep you feeling warm, but you won’t necessarily feel, dare we say, “fashion forward.” So one I wonder, can one’s clothing be functional and fashionable too?

Thankfully the answer is “yes.” Winter wear, across the board, used to be clunky, shapeless, and heavy—especially the footwear. But many clothing designers are now combining form with fashion, and with a little ingenuity and a good sense of humor, women no longer have to look as though they shop at the sporting goods store for their frosty finery.

When the weather is unbearably cold, one of my best friends is Mr. Sorel. These waterproof Cate the Great boots have seen me through a number of winters. They are funkier than most and they keep my tootsies toasty way down into the minus numbers.
Sorel Caate the Great $175
Sorel Cate the Great $175
And these wedge booties will keep you warm in a stylish way.
Reneeze Janice Wedge Bootie
Reneeze Janice Wedge Bootie
If one is splurging, these shearling-lined boots from No 6 Store are both warm and even a bit dressy.
No 6 Store $390
No 6 Store $390
Doreen Dove recently schooled us on how to shop for coats, and there are plenty of lovely ones out there, and they’re on sale!
This one from Ralph Lauren is warm and packable, which means it’s not bulky. So you won’t look like you borrowed it from Nanook of the North.
Ralph Lauren
Ralph Lauren
Layer a thick sweater under this Military Parka with quilted sleeves and you’re golden.
A great way to beat the winter doldrums, and still stay warm is with a fun-patterned coat. There’s no rule that says only summer clothing can be whimsical.
For more whimsy, a trapper hat or a woolly fleece-lined Himalayan knit can be added. You’ll have to stop worrying about your hair once  you head inside, but you’ll be warm and adorable outside.
J . Crew Trapper Hat
J . Crew Trapper Hat
Himalayan Knit Hat – Etsy
Wrap a cozy fleece infinity scarf around your neck or a show-stopping shawl over your coat, and Old Man Winter will be helpless when he attacks.
Fleece Infinity Scarf - Etsy
Fleece Infinity Scarf – Etsy

Pendelton Wool Shawl
Pendelton Wool Shawl

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Review: The Art of Social Media

Communication guru Marshall McLuhan asserted that "the medium is the message" so many years ago. I'm sure he had no idea how many platforms that message would be funneled through by the 21st century. I thought of him a lot when I read The Art of Social Media: Power Tips for Power Users, the new book by information power players, Guy Kawasaki and Peg Fitzpatrick. And as I attempted to absorb all that was put before me in this fast-paced, coming at you from all angles at breakneck speed book, I realized that no one could have predicted what today’s message disseminators were going to have to deal with. 

The first line of the book sets the tone as Kawasaki tells us the authors want us to “rock social media.” This is not “Social Media For Dummies”--if you are looking for the ABC’s, you will have to look elsewhere. In order to really appreciate what the book is about you must understand the basic concepts--meaning, no neophytes here, please. Only those who have already dipped their toes in the proverbial social media sea will benefit.

Kawasaki expects the reader to hit the ground running, and if you can keep up, you will find a huge storehouse of information about how to approach every social media platform and use it to its best advantage--for yourself, your business or a client’s business or organization.

Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, are all discussed in depth with content curation being a dominant focus. Where to find content that fits your niche, how and when to post, and how to respond to what will hopefully be many comments. Kawasaki stresses the importance of knowing your audience, building your network and increasing your fan base: “There are only two kinds of people on social media: those who want more followers, and those who are lying,” and his sharp wit often helps bring his point home. Of course, all of this is done with the ultimate intention of making money.

By often referring to his co-author, Peg, and providing both textual and visual examples of how she handles social media issues (she too is a thought leader in the field), the reader is actually getting a “two for one” deal. Kawasaki also uses a liberal hand when peppering his explanations with quotes and links from other industry smarties. (NOTE: I read the electronic version and found being able to immediately click on his links to be amazingly helpful.)

In addition to the “How To’s” (how to run a Google Hangout, how to take charge of an event, how to create a SlideShare presentation, how to organize a Twitter chat), the author has no problem telling us what not to do: “don’t be a pimp,” “don’t swear,” “don’t beg for shares and follows.” There are times when he does chide any naysayers--something I found to be a bit disconcerting--but he also goes out of his way to state that his “tips, tricks, and insights” should not be taken as gospel.

Whether you drink all the Kool-Aid or not, the book is so super-packed with information that you can’t help but take something away from it. It took me so long to get through it because I kept stopping to take notes! And, some of the most helpful portions appear after the conclusion...the list of apps and services is invaluable for someone like me who is often looking them up online. 

This book will serve as a helpful manual for anyone who handles social media for themselves or others and wants to learn how it can help grow your business. I know that I will reread it many times--each chapter is largely written as a separate entity, and can be easily referred to independently of the others. Algorithms will change and apps will come and go, but the philosophy and strategies that the authors so comprehensively share will continue to be pertinent for a long time to come.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Uninvited for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s something I plan for weeks in advance–pulling out my huge stack of November food magazines that I’ve been collecting for years. The other months’ issues are relatively dispensable as far as I’m concerned. It’s the November issue that’s the crown jewel of the year. I love seeing what new sides the editors have come up with and how they tweaked the old ones. ("Add morels to the mashed potatoes" one year, "take them out and add bacon" the next.) 

The photos of the table settings are always dazzling, and the people in the photos are always dressed to the nines, while having a grand time. Babies are never crying, their tear-stained faces smeared with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. There are never pictures of drunken Uncle Al or miserably hostile Cousin Minnie. In those photos, everyone is beautiful and laughing, and life is perfect.

In the real world, Thanksgiving is a study of contradictions. It’s supposed to be a day when we turn inward and reflect on all that we are thankful for in life, and then hopefully (at least in my house) we turn outward and express our thanks in words and deeds. Ironically, the things that I find so special about the holiday–being together with family and friends–make other people’s skin crawl. In many homes, the Thanksgiving gods are frauds. Not everyone loves their family. Sometimes harsh words and actions of the past cannot be overlooked, even for one day. The wounds and scars they've left behind are immutable, and being with certain family members merely serves as a reminder of the damage. I can appreciate that, and I feel truly blessed that I can look upon the holiday with anticipation rather than trepidation.

Most of my Thanksgiving memories are happy ones. In fact, there’s only one that I can think of that rocked me to my Chanterelle mushroom-gravy-loving core….

Many years ago our family was “uninvited” to the house of a “friend” two days before the holiday. What we thought was going to be a day spent with that friend and her family was obliterated when she called to say that her mom wanted it to be “just family,” and she hoped we understood. As shocked as I was, there was not much for me to do at that point, other than say “yes,” and as I did, visions of myself running through the aisles of supermarkets searching for dinner ingredients clicked through my head like a film projector on speed.

 I don’t remember why I initially gave up the taking of the helm of the Thanksgiving boat that year. We were relatively new to the area, and spending the day making inroads with some new friends sounded appealing, perhaps.  Ultimately, I did manage to patch together a tasty meal–tears falling into my mixing bowl as I prepared the stuffing and peeled the sweet potatoes. (I know, that’s a little melodramatic, but it is true.) And as salt-bitten and puffy-faced as I was, feeling alone and missing my family 3,000 miles away, my boys, who were very young at the time, didn’t seem to notice me or that no one else was joining us for dinner.

When the sumptuous meal was served and eaten, it was obvious to all that another family (a few families) could have joined us at the table and there would still have been leftovers. 

And then I had a brainstorm: why not share the leftovers with those who had no dinner? 

This was going to be one of those great learning experiences! We told our boys (who were by then, slumped over their dinner plates because we had eaten so darn late) that we were going on an adventure, and as my husband and I furiously packed up the rest of the turkey, cornbread stuffing with sausage, sweet potato and apple gratin, and pie, they looked at each other and rolled their eyes. “Just another one of Mom’s kooky ideas.”

We loaded them and the food into the car and proceeded to head to downtown Long Beach, because if you were looking for people who were not partaking of Thanksgiving dinner in the conventional way, of course they would be just lying on the streets of this urban wasteland…waiting for you! Not!  This was not a well-planned mission–this was a fly-by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants project. We didn’t (I didn’t) stop to think that most people who had nowhere to go were probably being fed at churches and community centers. So, it was no surprise that at 8 p.m., on a chilly Thanksgiving evening, the streets of downtown Long Beach were deserted

We drove around for a while and found one soul pushing a supermarket cart that was loaded with bags filled with who-knows-what.

“Stop the car!” I yelled. “This guy is getting our food, whether he wants it or not.” 

I grabbed one of our shopping bags and added it to his collection. “Happy Thanksgiving,” I said. He nodded, and as we pulled away, I turned around and could see him gingerly looking through the bag.

We didn't stick around to see whether the recipient of our gourmet meal was thrilled or befuddled, but I'm sure there was a smile on my face (first one of the day) as we drove away. “You see, guys, we turned our Thanksgiving around…now let’s go home and have some pie.”

This Thanksgiving parable may sound a little hokey, more like something straight out of an O.Henry anthology or better yet, a Jean Shepherd film, but it really did happen. Did it have a huge impact on the lives of my kids? I’m not sure they even remember it – I’ll have to ask them when I see them on Thanksgiving. But it meant a lot to me. It reminded me of the importance of sharing, your time, your food, your compassion, with others during the holidays. How an act of kindness may sometimes be more valuable to the giver than the receiver. 

I have hosted many Thanksgiving dinners since that one, and invariably there are one or two at the table who would ordinarily have nowhere else to go. These are the celebrations that have left their mark on my sons. They appreciate a full house as much as they appreciate a full plate.

One of my standard desserts around this time of year is Pumpkin Bread Pudding. The only pumpkin bread recipe I use when making this comes from the nuns at The Monastery of the Angels in the Hollywood Hills. They began selling their famous pumpkin bread years ago during the holidays, and rumor has it that they sell upwards of 18,000 loaves a year. I’ve read that the “nuns are skeptical that their bread can be duplicated,” but this recipe is touted as being theirs. If you add some cranberries, dried or fresh, or chocolate chips, it is really good enough to eat all on its own.

Monastery of Angels Pumpkin Bread

3½ cups sifted flour
3 cups sugar
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1½ tsp. salt
4 eggs beaten
1 cup oil
2/3 cup water
2 cups canned pumpkin
Walnut halves
1 cup each, chocolate chips and dried cranberries (opt.)

Sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Combine eggs, oil, water and pumpkin and mix well. Stir into dry ingredients. Gently fold in the chocolate chips and/or cranberries, if using. Turn into 3 greased loaf pans and top with a few walnut halves. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Cool before slicing.  Makes 3 1-3/4 lb. loaves.