Tuesday, October 2, 2007

May I suggest? An alternative to that colonic

It has been 10 days since I last smoked a cigarette. I quit for my 26th birthday, and to fulfill a long overdue promise to my little sister, Gena, and because the month and year I started -- September 2001 -- no longer feels like recent history. I quit because it's a crutch, and it makes me feel good to knock it out from under my armpit.

I'm currently using a patch, 14 mg. every 24 hours. It's going quite well, thank you.

I swear I felt my lungs expand a little wider in a kick-my-ass cardio class on Sunday. And I'm relaxed, knowing I'm one step closer to becoming the liberated, long-living lady of the world that I want to be. There's still the daily Diet Coke habit, but I'm on a healthier path.

The perfect food for this new leaf? Why, bran jelly, of course!

It's the bland, baby food-like substance that the overextended and well-to-do subsisted upon while they recuperated from the Gay (Eighteen-)Nineties lifestyle at a Michigan sanatarium run by the King of Corn Flakes himself, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Sanitariums were the luxury rehabs of their day, where one could wilt gracefully after too long a stretch as society's favored belle, indulge one's moist-eyed dreams of literary greatness, or quietly pass into old maidenhood (not to be confused with sanatoriums, legitimate medical facilities for the terminally consumptive).

Mrs. E. E. Kellogg taught her coddled, pooped-out guests to treat their ailments with a diet of whole grains. Healthy, yes, but as I've discovered, an all-around failure in presentation, imagination, and flavor.

She published her secrets to gastronomic wellbeing in Science in the Kitchen in 1893, the year in which Pabst won its blue ribbon, a devil ran amuck in a white city, a crash of the NY Stock Exchange triggered a depression, and the American Council on Alcohol Problems was established. Clearly Mrs. Kellogg's temperance-minded advice was much in demand.

How was bran jelly supposed to cure you of your hard-partying ways? It's not clear, but it seems the mechanism had something to do with the cleansing of the colon and the regulation of the bowels. Good plumbing, as it were.

Bran jelly is the liquid pressed from boiled wheat bran. As I set out to prepare it, I didn't realize just how little substance I would end up with. There are no measurements in the recipe included in American Food Writing -- we are instructed to sprinkle clean wheat bran "slowly into boiling water as for Graham mush, stirring briskly meanwhile with a wooden spoon, until the whole is about the consistency of thick gruel." I went with a ratio of about one-to-one: 4 cups of bran and 4 cups of water, and ended up having to add a bit more water, as you can see in the video.

It's been ages since I was rescued from that dastardly orphanage, so I'm a bit hazy on the precise mouthfeel and thickness of good gruel. I went for a more familiar consistency: stick-to-your-ribs oatmeal. I then plopped the bran mush into my roommate's Crock-Pot, as an alternative to Mrs. Kellogg's double boiler.

As per Mrs. K's instructions, I left to boil gently for two more hours, after which the mush appeared, smelled, and tasted much the same. (I can only presume all the boiling was to ensure any nutritional value in this supposed health food would be well and truly squelched.) I began to strain through a fine wire sieve -- but the first cup or two of mush, dumped unceremoniously in the sieve, produced about a teaspoon of gelatinous goo not unlike wet Pacific sand.

The sieving proved to be the most difficult part of the process. I did everything I could to coax as much goo out of the gruel as heavenly possible. I pressed and pried with the flat side of the spoon, turned the spoon in concentric arcs, smashed the underside of bowl into the mush to squeeze the liquid out, and finally left it overnight, to let gravity do the rest of the work.

I had less than two cups of bran goo when I awoke. I reheated it to boiling and stirred in a spoonful of amaranth flour "rubbed smooth in a little cold water." (I couldn't find Graham flour at the Co-op. My favorite not-graham graham crackers are made with amaranth, so I figured it was a legitimate substitute.) Following Mrs. K's directions, I turned the mixture into molds. (Since taking on this cooking project, molds have become the bane of my existence. What is our foreparents' obsession with containing and taming every food?! Of course, it doesn't help that I don't own proper molds and always end up using fluted glass bowls meant for storage or silicone cupcake pans -- by the way, never buy silicone muffin pans. Ms. Heidi has made a similar comment in other circumstances and it's true: silicone for baking? Sucks.)

For supper that evening -- a Monday in which I attended a Pilates class before work and did 40 mins. of cardio after work, good girl that I am/can sometimes be -- I settled down to bran jelly. Mrs. K recommends that it be served cold with "cream or fruit juice." My roommate had some bowel-cleansing plum juice in the fridge. How appropriate! I prepared myself a pretty tray, one of those breakfast-in-bed affairs with handles, complete with drab flower.

Two bites in and I was longing for cream. It's possible that this meal would fill me up if I'd done nothing but lounge on an old-fashioned reclining straw-covered wheelchair on the veranda all day, but this simply was not going to cut it. It was nearly flavorless and the consistency was a confusing no-man's land between jam and porridge (a far cry from jelly -- but as we've established, it appears that I couldn't even make super glue set!).

I supplemented my meal with the modern ascetic's solution to a weekend of over-exertion: a bowl of wilted spinach, plain, topped with a few pieces of ready-made macrobiotic vegetarian peking duck stuffed with shitake mushrooms. (I followed the meal with two squares of Lindt Intense Orange 70% Chocolate. Shh, don't tell Mrs. K!)

I've asked myself why Ms. O'Neill chose this particular recipe for the anthology. Is Bran Jelly a national treasure, deserved of its position next to such culinary touchstones as "Macaroni a la Sauce Blanche" (a.k.a. mac n' cheese) and "Tunnel of Fudge Cake," winner of the 1966 Pillsbury Bake-Off?

In a word: no. But then it came to me. Bran Jelly was a harbinger of things to come. In this respect, it's not unlike an 1881 recipe for Chicken Croquettes, the prototype for the Chicken McNugget. Looking back, we see the makings of a nation that will become increasingly obsessed with fads, diets, speed, and quick fixes. We've gotten cannier with flavor substitutes, broader-minded in our culinary references, fancier with our colon-cleansing retreats, competitive in our search for the most whole, healthy, and life-fulfilling. But there it is, in a bowl of tasteless brown goo and in the umpteenth new energy drink with a flavor that bears no resemblance to those found in nature -- it's unmistakable: the more things change the more things stay the same.


arif said...

congratulations on quitting, hope it is still going well for you.

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