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Dirt Brownies: Healthy Cooking Disasters

Have you ever looked at a post on a recipe or foodie blog (or even a Pinterest recipe posted by your aunt on Facebook) and thought, “That looks both simple and delicious! I should totally try that! That won’t turn out a hot mess AT ALL!” I have a history of doing that. And much like the woman behind the Pintester blog, I have a history of working with whatever items I have around the house or what I can source in a small town in southern Kentucky, trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as it were, when I shouldn’t even be in the market for a faux silk purse in the first place. It always backfires.

I grew up in a household of working women who weren’t your traditional American homemakers. My maternal grandmother and my mom, accomplished as they are and love them as I do, weren’t big on home cooking as art form. I grew up on a lot of Campbell’s soup and Chef Boyardee and Meat Variety Helper products. My stepmom and paternal grandmother were each better cooks, but I didn’t learn a lot from either of them until I was older. Until last year, I was still making Amish Friendship Bread from a starter my stepmom gave me in 2009, and I loved it. Baking is easy. You put in ingredients from a pre-set formula, knowing how it’s supposed to turn out and not straying from the formula too much, and blam, science turns it into a pie or something marvelous. Baking is fun and always appreciated. Everyone loves pie. I love baking.

Cooking? Cooking is a chore. It’s thankless. In the U.S., we begrudgingly pay people minimum wage to cook for us. We hardly ever thank the people who feed us every day unless provoked by a special occasion. I don’t even care if my cooking turns out badly; I will usually eat whatever horrible thing I cook rather than go to the trouble of cooking again. I would rather eat Bachelor Chow than cook. Filboid Studge‘s marketing would have worked on me.

But boy howdy, I didn’t know that my passion for baking and my anti-knack for cooking would intersect so thoroughly when I tried to have a make-it-work moment with my pantry and a good recipe for an unhealthy food. The other day, I was taking a look at Paleo recipes and found a recipe for muffins over at PaleOMG. “Protein. Nut-free. Paleo. Chocolate. Baking.” These words made my heart beat faster. “Yes, I will be trying THAT,” I told my computer. My computer, having heard this before, tried to shut down. I admire its attempt to save me from myself. But despite the best efforts of the author to provide clear instructions and advice about substitutions in the comments, I still managed to eff up everything and made what I can only term as Dirt Brownies.

I didn’t learn my lesson from last year’s protein pumpkin pie disaster. I was feeding my dogs lots of pumpkin to help their tummies adjust to the stress of moving and new bacteria their bodies were not used to dealing with. I had a lot of canned plain pumpkin on my hands, and one day, I found a recipe that incorporated egg whites, canned pumpkin, some spices, protein powder, and magic to make perfect little pumpkin pie breakfast cakes.

That little voice in your head that tells you, “You should listen to the instructions. You need to pick up some genuine yak butter to make this recipe. You cannot substitute llama butter again”? Listen to that voice. That is the voice that I did not heed. That’s why I used chocolate powder in my slightly chocolate-pumpkin cake. That’s why I used a whole egg, yolk and all, to make an eggy, slightly chocolate-pumpkin cake. That’s why I used an old bottle of apple pie spices and too much Splenda to make a Splenda-coated, inconsistently spiced like apple pie, eggy, slightly chocolate-pumpkin pie that tasted like failure and had a texture like a cheap kitchen sponge.

I didn’t learn my lesson from 8 years of sometimes-strange vegetarian dinners. Ok, often-strange vegetarian dinners. I wasn’t one of those vegetarians who made a lot of stir fry vegetables in a wok and ate raw vegetables on the regular; I was more a fan of Boca and Morningstar and Quorn products wrapped in carbohydrates. A lot of dinners were wet marinara and whole wheat pasta and soggy microwaved vegetable mix. There were also a few from-scratch disasters that involved: over- or under-cooked quinoa; eggplant that I didn’t quite know what to do with; butternut squash ravioli that would not actually stay in the ravioli (delicious but way labor intensive); an apple and pear pie that didn’t cook all the way through; blocks of tofu incorrectly cooked, poorly spiced, or some combination thereof.

I didn’t even learn from my high school years, when I was sometimes a latchkey kid cooking my own dinner. I once made an entire boxed dinner in a pot that had been pre-soaked in dish soap, but not rinsed out, by my mother. The less said about those meals, the better.

A lot of my bad food experiments have started with nothing but the best intentions. But I think they have another thing in common: trying to replicate something worse for me by using an imperfect mix of ingredients that are nominally good for me.

So let’s take a walk down memory lane, back to two or three days ago, when I made my Dirt Brownies.

The recipe calls for sunflower butter. I don’t have any on hand. Neither did the two local groceries – surprise! I did find off-brand Nutella, which I almost bought for science, except the sugar content is really high. I thought, “Hell, I’ll make my own sunflower butter!” Without bothering to consult a recipe, I bought a container of roasted sunflower seeds. I also picked up a few other ingredients, like coconut flakes (um… well, none of this is unsweetened. Oh well, that’s not a lot)… baker’s chocolate (it says dark chocolate, but this baker’s chocolate has hardly any sugar at all, and I’m not looking for sugar, right?)… protein powder or coconut flour or whatever (nope, didn’t use any of these, just more coconut flakes).

When I got home, I busted out my little food processor. I tried like mad to make it work, gave up, and handed it to my boyfriend, who promptly fixed it within 5 seconds of laying hands on it. He is a jerk.

Sunflower Butter: The Journey

Sunflower Butter: The Journey

A recipe I found for sunflower butter said, “Don’t use the dry roasted sunflower seeds with salt! Use unroasted and unsalted only, as they’ll have more oils inside to make your sunflower butter creamy!” I slowly edged the empty canister of dry roasted, salted sunflower seeds into the trash as I turned on the food processor. Bzzt! What a lovely powder this makes! The recipe said I could add some oil. I’ve got canola oil and olive oil. The olive oil bottle had been used to clean my boyfriend’s work boots, the tip repeatedly touched to the polishing rag. Olive oil it was. I tossed in a good glorping of the oil (measurements are for the prepared!) and gave it a whirl for a few more minutes, poking the sludge with a little plastic blade. It seemed to work out ok, so I went with it.

I included the eggs in the recipe, the sunflower butter and a pinch of the coconut flakes. I didn’t add salt, since that seemed to be covered by the salty, salty sunflower seeds. I didn’t add protein powder or coconut flour, because I didn’t have either. I microwaved the baker’s chocolate to soften it enough for me to cut into tiny pieces. “The better to distribute through the muffins! Wait, I don’t have a muffin pan. …The better to distribute through the BROWNIES! I’m such a genius!”

I drizzled on some honey, fearing how granola-y the batter looked once in a little 9×9 pan, how little sugar I had used, and what it might taste like. It came out of the oven about 15 minutes later still bubbling around the edges. I left it on the stove for a few minutes to cool, then cut out my first piece and took a bite.

It was a bite I will remember for the rest of my life. It is filed under the mental note: “Tastes like hot dirt.”

Unknown to me at the time this photo was taken, the trivet probably tastes better than anything else in the photo.

Unknown to me at the time this photo was taken, the trivet probably tastes better than anything else in the photo.

I told my boyfriend what happened. “You’re welcome to try one if you want,” I told him, warning him of the healthy ingredients. He took a bite, un-took the bite, and threw the rest into the trash. Then he set his tongue on fire. From space.

He heard me putting them into plastic ware later. “You’re SAVING THOSE??”

“I made them, I should eat them. They are brownies of atonement.”

I had the last two small brownies after dinner tonight. I wanted to eat more, even after two burger patties with cheese, a sweet potato, and a tomato-okra stew, so I finished off the container. If I am going to idly eat, I’m going to idly eat something that has some protein and makes me think twice before the next time I make a healthy version of an unhealthy food.

The best food I’ve ever eaten has been fresh produce. There is nothing so wonderful as big, ripe raspberries or blueberries or blackberries or strawberries. I love different apple varieties. Carrots and I get along famously. Baked sweet potatoes go great with anything. And did I mention apples? I love apples.

A woman named Eve loves apples. FILM AT 11.

A woman named Eve loves apples. FILM AT 11.

I need to remember that the less processed my food is, the more I’m probably going to enjoy it. The further I stray from a tested recipe, the better the chances are that I will hate my results. I have many talents; culinary intuition is not one of them.

At least my spirit of adventure has not left me, despite the array of poor sensory experiences I have visited upon myself. I’ll try almost anything once. Cricket flour as ingredient in energy bars has me slightly repulsed and slightly intrigued. I may be trusted to buy a bar if they ever make their way to my regional health food stores, but please, send people to my house to prevent me from baking using cricket flour. What I create from it would likely result in a plague of locusts.

It Is Still Fresh Air, Even If It Smells Like Manure

The out-of-doors in the summer. It’s gorgeous! It’s covered in bees! It’s covered in kudzu, wildflowers, horses, crops, and cows, too, as far as I can tell.

Ahh, the countryside.

Ahh, the countryside.

The temperature has been more than reasonable most of this week – 75-80F (24-27C), partly cloudy, breezy. The place where I live has gentle, rolling hills and shade trees and farmland all mixed together. It’s ideal.

I haven’t been walking much the last 7 months, ever since I moved into my own house with a yard that didn’t leave dog-walking as a necessity anymore. Moreover, I took my dogs out a few months ago, and we were attacked by a dog that came off its chain down the street. So there’s been precious few dog-accompanied adventures, and until recently, precious few adventures undertaken solo.

I have enjoyed walking down to the flat bridge over a nearby creek. I’ve only been on that walk a few times, though. Part of that is the mental battle I have with that steep-ass hill that leads down to the creek. The 1.3 miles down to the creek is almost completely downhill. The trip back up is not really a lot of fun. The creek is usually lovely and enjoyable to watch for a few minutes. I have rediscovered my love of skipping stones on the water, and I usually come away with a memento, such as a little geode I plan to clean up and put on my desk at work.

Flat bridge ahoy! So beautiful and calm! And at the bottom of a mile-long steep grade! Bleh!

Flat bridge ahoy! So beautiful and calm! And at the bottom of a mile-long steep grade! Bleh!

The main problem with walking down the main road to work out: traffic. I’m not very keen on sharp hill crests and turns where I could be a surprise object in the roadway. I try to cross the road, or walk in the tall grass in ditches on the side of the road, if I hear a vehicle coming. But there are a lot of ticks in this part of the country, and they sometimes hang out in the tall grass, waiting. Planning. Scheming. Hungry. The ticks and I are at war. There are no survivors once they are found in my house, on my pets, and especially on my person. The first line of defense is a good offense, and that means walking on the road when I can.

Being an explorer and a self-preservationist, I decided to walk in the opposite direction of the bridge the other day, opting for a nearby single-lane, paved, quiet road that winds through the main Mennonite settlement in my county. It was a good choice. I mean, the county where I live is just chock full of natural beauty anyway; it’s really nice to be able to walk slowly through it and appreciate it up close without fear of being run over by an F-250 every two minutes. While on this slender thread of pavement through lush farmland and riotous green woods, I gave directions to some lost folks in a pick-up and waved politely at anyone who passed me, whether they were in work trucks or open-air horse-drawn buggies. I felt that I looked out of place, walking along a road mostly traveled by farm workers while in my bright teal workout shirt (get your rear in gear!), headphones, hiking boots, sunglasses, and knee brace. But I was also very at-home in my surroundings. I spent some of my childhood summers on a sprawling farm just outside of town: riding bikes down dirt roads, looking at the cows, trying to rescue birds from oil ponds bubbling up next to little-used derricks, and picking blackberries. I’ve always loved the outdoors, and living in a place where I can more easily appreciate it year-round is a gift I will always cherish.

Wide open spaces and a seldom-used fork in the road.

Wide open spaces and a seldom-used fork in the road.

Meeting house, complete with water pump and hitching posts.

Meeting house, complete with water pump and hitching posts.

I photographed all kinds of wildlife while I was out earlier this week. I was delighted to find a small waterfall lurking behind foliage, trickling slowly into a creek that wound under a bridge and into a pasture where several beautiful honey-colored horses grazed in the midday sun. I marked that bridge as my halfway point to make an approximate 5k (~3.1 miles) from my starting point. When I reached that point again today, the horses were gone, and there was something very dead by the creek. It smelled terrible, and it persisted for a tenth of a mile. Then, on my way back to my starting point, the wind had shifted to where I was upwind, and I managed to be in the path of the breeze after it had passed over every single pile of horse manure on the road. I took it in stride in the name of better health.

I had a great couple of walks, though I know my calves are going to be sore for a few days. Months of activity followed up by three 5k walks in a single week? Not without consequences. At least I had the foresight to wear my ankle brace and my knee brace both. And sunscreen, most of the time.

Future home of freckles.

Future home of freckles.

Now, it is time to talk tragedy. My amazing hiking boots that I got last fall, which have seen me through many miles with my dogs and on my own, suffered an eyelet loss earlier today. Quel dommage!

ALORS. Now my laced-up boot looks ridiculous.

ALORS. Now my laced-up boot looks ridiculous.

I’ll figure out a fix – it may involve heavy-duty glue, or an awl, or something. The boots are otherwise fine, and I might even be able to get away with still wearing them in their current, stupidly-laced state for a while yet to come.

Another lesser tragedy: my old sports bras are now in dire need of replacement. They are not structured at all; I bought one at Target, another on sale at a sporting goods store, and I bought them both to wear to physical therapy when I was 40 pounds heavier than I weigh now. It’s going to be a while before I can afford a really good underwired upgrade, so I may either tailor one of them or buy something inexpensive to get me through the fall at a big box retailer.

My less-than-sturdy body parts are doing well; little ankle soreness, no knee complaints to speak of, and even my surgery scars are all right. I am still ever-mindful of too much exercise straining my abdominal surgery scars. No pain so far after my third walk in a week, but it could take a day or two for that to still happen.

Links: xoJane Articles on Body Policing

I love me some xoJane, having grown up reading my sister’s copies of Sassy as a preteen and following the career of founder Jane Pratt for years. Her current website is a wonderful collection of opinion, confessional, and storytelling pieces by a variety of writers who cover the spectrum of the experience of young women in the United States. I particularly love the pieces that center on issues around weight, society’s view of women, eating disorders, fitness, and how these topics intertwine.

Don’t read the comments is the universal rule of the internet when you want to keep your faith in humanity. S.E. Smith has read the comments for us on an online article written by a law student bothered by an eating disorder-promoting t-shirt (banned when originally released) worn by an alumnus to a university gym.

Being fat in public is hard enough, the way our society works, and xoJane author Lesley gets annoyed along with the rest of us for the concern trolling and revulsion some critics have expressed recently over Melissa McCarthy and Chris Christie. Keep your fat-hating to yourself. It’s not making the lives of the overweight and obese any better; it’s not motivating them to lose weight; it’s not helping them in any way; it’s just poison put into the air, and it’s extremely entitled thinking to believe your opinion should and will make any difference to anyone else about their own private lives. And nobody would like it if someone started policing you on your habits – I don’t care if you live on carrots, kelp, and free-range tuna and run 19 miles a day, you would be pissed if someone started bossing you around, ridiculing your appearance, making you out to be less of a person, and criticizing you for everything you put into your body if the body ideal was something other than what you have.

Basically, these articles boil down to “shut your hate hole” to those who feel the need to police the bodies of people around them with hate disguised as humor, hate expressed in a movie review, or hate dressed up like unsought medical advice. Thanks to xoJane for helping to boost the signal of voices that say you’ve got a right to live in your own body without being told you have to hate it based on the opinions of people who aren’t you.

A Stranger’s Clothes

I went clothes shopping again, and I’m still not used to this newish size. My weight has stabilized at around 165 pounds, but clothes shopping for my current body is still something I’m learning how to do; a couple of months at being at this weight have yet to displace 10-plus years of knowing by sight what will fit a U.S. size 16-18 butt.

Oh, my sweaters. I’m 35ish pounds down, and most of the sweaters I bought when I weighed 200 pounds now look clownishly outsized. TJ Maxx yielded three long-sleeved shirts. I shopped in their size Large racks for the first time ever. I’ve never been down to a size Large since I was employed enough to have disposable income.

A red, black, and gray color-block sweater

A commanding sweater, suitable for warding off the frost of deep space. TJ Maxx, if this hadn’t been fifty American dollars, I would be wearing this right now. I don’t care if it’s still 90 degrees in Texas… it would be my number one.

I found some adorable, inexpensive t-shirts at Target while swimsuit shopping, so I bought a properly-fitting top that isn’t a solid color v-neck (this is progress). I was at Target to buy an end of season swimsuit, since the only suit I have is – surprise – condemned to the box with the rest of the charity clothes, guilty of the crime of looking like a deflated grape on my person.

A cartoon of an unhappy woman in a baggy one-piece swimsuit

My grape-colored swimsuit has seen better days and better fit. Let’s not talk about it any more than we have to.

My purchases got thrown into the washer and dryer with a small load of other stuff, and as I was folding some of the pants I hemmed a few weeks ago and adjusting a shirt on the drying rack, I found myself wondering, “Jeez. These go through the hot water wash by accident? Did these jeans shrink? What about this t-shirt? They don’t look big enough to fit me.” I brought the folded pile of clothing to my closet to put them away, then wound up trying a couple of items on just to check. Yeah, they’re fine. These aren’t a stranger’s clothes – this is just a stranger’s body I’m living in and shopping for.

I saw a photo progression linked from Reddit’s Loseit community: a woman’s photographic journey down 160 pounds. One of her quotes from the article struck me: “I remember the devastation of not recognizing the person reflected back to me in the mirror.” I see my unrecognizable reflection in the clothes I pick out to try on even now. I am still alarmed at how small they seem to my eyes, and I have yet to trust anything I’ve learned from my limited clothes shopping efforts since February.

Of the 5 items I brought into the dressing room at Target, I only held onto one of them – a pair of shorts that I could fit into, but that I wasn’t sure I’d still be able to wear next summer; a swimsuit top, which was a size 16 and underwired, but still too small for my boobs and in need of strap alteration before I can wear it in public; swimsuit bottoms that fit perfectly; and two t-shirts that I got in a size too large. I almost bought the tees, but they were just too big. I’ve got a policy of not buying clothes unless I love how they make me look, and they just didn’t cut it. I could only find the next size down in one of the t-shirt designs. I can order the other shirt online if I’m desperate.

I’m surprised at myself that I picked up the larger t-shirt sizes first, but when I saw them on display, looked at the cut of the smaller garments and compared them against the shirt I was wearing, I thought, “There’s no way in hell.” Especially after a week of ok eating except for the going-away-party cake and cupcakes I ate so much of during one of my last days at my old job.

A yellow and black Batman logo cake. Written on cake, "Good luck with your poisonints."

Holy baking pans, Batman! This misspelled cake could be a clue from the Riddler! Who cares, Robin, this thing is DELICIOUS.

But here I am, kind of rocking the new stripey t-shirt, ready to wear it to training for my new job. Added bonus: my old button-up shirts are no longer “wear over a tank top and don’t button” shirts, but “you can totally button* this!” shirts.

*still have to use a safety pin to avoid gapping, because that’s how life is.

Side by side photos of a woman modeling shirts

These are my super serious fashion blogger poses I whip out only for special occasions, like weeknights.

I’m not the perfect size, but I don’t think there is such a thing. I’m not my best me yet, but I’m working on it. I’ve got to get to know this new body’s sizing quickly, though, as I move toward a start date at my new job, where I’ll be required to dress like an adult in nice, well-fitting clothes. At least the selection will be larger and more flattering than the shapeless horrors of plus size business casual, but that’s a rant for another day.

Links: Why So Cereal

Sorry I’ve been AFK. I’ve dealt with health issues and a family crisis for the past few weeks, and I’m just now feeling like a productive member of society once more. Have some links and a look at the foods I’ve been eating lately.

  • I stole this link from a friend, and I want to post it everywhere, ever: The Terrible Tragedy of the Healthy Eater. It is so easy to make yourself crazy with the self-imposed eating habits, keeping up with spurious blog claims, reading forums written by the self-righteous and condescending. Everybody, you have my permission to chill the eff out about your food and laugh at yourself.
  • Funny recipe/life blog PaleOMG is always worth reading. Sometimes I just look at the pictures, sigh about how boring my life is in comparison, and then go on to the recipes.
A 4-photo spread of food.

What I’ve been eating. Top left: grilled chicken, grilled bison burger with bleu cheese, sauteed asparagus, and pasta salad. Top right: My grocery haul, including all manner of seasonal fruit, squash, fresh veggies, and wine. Bottom left: dinner from last night was carrots, raw sliced mushrooms, and a cranberry trail mix. Bottom right: lunch from last week of raw carrots, baked chicken in rosemary and butter, and a diced Bartlett pear.

  • Speaking of recipes, Rantings of an Amateur Chef regularly makes stuff that I would love to have on my plate. Step-by-step recipe photos, a wide ranges of food topics, daily posts, and plenty of variety make this a must-read for those whose palates would benefit from experiencing something new.
  • And then, tooting my own horn as one of the team of moderators on Reddit’s 90 Days Goal community, here’s my Saturday post about seasonal food. I’ll be posting the daily posts on Saturdays. I think food is such a widely varied subject that it deserves all the talking about it can get, and I’ll be contributing to that conversation between mods and community members.

Links: xoJane writers on relationships with food, unwilling weight loss

An avid reader of Sassy when I was a teenager, I was delighted a while back to learn that Jane Pratt now has a website for and largely by women, xoJane, discussing a variety of topics with an edge and different editorial voice than other woman-oriented article and link-accrual sites such as Jezebel or the Hairpin. xoJane regularly publishes excellent articles about body image, weight, and food. Here are two recent stories well worth the read:

Adventures in Topamax: I’m On a Weight Loss Drug, But Not Because I Want to Lose Weight, author Sara Eyre – this touches on feeling out of control with your health, as well as the emphasis people sometimes put on weight loss over health.

My Grandma Died from an Eating Disorder, author Claire Glass – discusses the legacy of relationships with food over several generations of women.