on fat and spontaneity

Today’s workout: 40 minute big gear workout followed by 70 minutes of running (pace work); yoga and/or paddle swim in the evening.

This post is dedicated to two of my favorite things. Fat, and spontaneity. I’ll start with the latter.

Not a bad day for riding.

Saturday’s ride through Joshua Tree National Park delivered a fresh jolt of the unexpected into my fairly predictable weekly schedule. Up until Thursday night, the plan had been to spend the weekend in Palm Springs doing a century ride and half marathon with a group of my teammates.

After our housing plan fell through, however, Plan B unfolded quickly before me and I ended up on a couch in Palm Desert with three familiar faces and 10 new ones. I was grateful for the new training environment, and for the chance to practice flexing that spontaneous muscle I too often ignore.

I traded my two races for a) making a whole bunch of new, incredibly generous friends from Chicago, b) getting to ride my bike through a cold, windy, and starkly beautiful desert, and c) drinking barolo at a restaurant straight out of The Godfather with a few of my favorite people. It’s a trade I’d gladly do again, changing only the bitter 4-degree C weather we started riding in.

The cuddliest of the cacti kingdom. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Hall.)

In other news, happy Mardi Gras (aka Fat Tuesday) everyone. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent—which for many just means an excuse to eat pancakes and go out and party. For some, it means that the first tendrils of spring are starting to show, despite the still clinging winter. Whatever it means now, Fat Tuesday got its start when Christians would clear their cupboards of fat and flour in order to prepare for 40 days of leanness.

I can hear all you triathletes now: Did I hear something about leanness? Sign me up!

Last Saturday’s 80 mile trek through Joshua Tree.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, really. I’m here to talk about fat.

As a triathlete—which is basically synonymous with some degree of food obsession—the notion that eating fat doesn’t make you fat is something I’m still learning. It’s becoming more well known that stuffing ourselves with low fat and nonfat everything doesn’t work, as such foods are often loaded with extra sugar and fillers to make up for the lack of flavor. I’m still developing a healthier relationship with food overall, but I think triathlon has helped me come to love and appreciate fat. I no longer shiver in fear at the sight of a bright yellow yolk breaking over a thick slab of perfectly-cooked bacon.

I’m not knowledgeable enough to go into the whole burning fat as fuel/carbohydrate debate, but today I’m celebrating the f-word in all its delicious forms. (My favorites: Avocados, nuts, coconut oil, eggs, and all things pork.)

So go eat some good fat today. Or go be spontaneous, where it’s often the hardest. Either will do you good.

hard knocks and letting go

Today’s workout: Rose Canyon hill repeats and speed work, 6:00 am. Sore, uninspired.

Last night Mark and I walked the Labyrinth behind Scripps Hospital’s Exercise Physiology center. I take private swimming lessons there — with this year’s 30-34 Ironman age group world champion, Christina Jackson. It had been a particularly tough day for me, and despite forgetting everything for those precious 40 minutes in the pool, it came reeling back to me the second I hit the showers.

“Let’s walk the labyrinth,” he said. I whined, silently, in protest, but conceded. When you’re upset, the last thing you want are motivational posters with kittens hanging onto branches or yoga instructors telling you to tap into your inner strength or a some medieval meditation maze telling you everything’s going to be OK. You just want to pity yourself for awhile. Or get mad and throw staplers at your office door.

But I walked it anyway.

It wasn’t particularly beautiful. It was dark to see the ocean just beyond the Torrey Pines cliffs. But it slowed down the train-wreck that had become my thought process long enough for me to come out on the other side with a different perspective. The thing about labyrinths? You just have to keep walking and trust you’ll get to the center. You have to walk away from the center in order to move towards it.

I know, blah blah blah, but it’s kinda true.

Then when we got home, more tears.

DCIM100GOPRO

I recently returned from a work assignment in Tucson, which you can read about here. In short, I swam, biked, and ran my way through four days with six other triathletes of the dude variety. Needless to say, there were frequent opportunities to escape to the pool area or my room for some much-needed alone time.

Unexpectedly, spending a weekend out of the home zone was a boost. I came back feeling rejuvenated and more optimistic than I have in a while. Dust in one area of my life settled nicely, and Tuesday flew by in a whirl of activity.

Then, yesterday.

Things change quickly. Things we have no control over. Things we don’t agree with. Things we have to let go of.

There are those damn motivational kitten posters again.

I face a predicament of perspective. It’s all in how you look at things, right? One eye sees a haggard old woman in the drawing, another a beautiful maiden. As a door closes for me, I just need some time to bite and scratch it for awhile, until I have the energy to go bust down another one.

Or find a window, a rabbit hole, or something altogether more fun.

photo

My time in the Arizona desert inspired me to return to writing—my first love, and something I’ve not been cultivating lately. Freshcrackedpepper.com was built on this love, and I miss it.

So whether it’s a short post on my training, or just thoughts on my day, you’re going to be hearing a lot more here from me. You probably won’t find elaborate recipes or my latest projects in the kitchen, as those passions have given way to new ones. But I’ll be writing. About my races, my life, and what I’m eating and thinking about. I’ll be writing.

To stay engaged.

To stay inspired.

To stay alive.

entering the Ironman fold

I’m not the personal race report writing type. Never have been, and after this, probably never will be. But last night, after pouring a glass of pinot (OK, three) and sitting down to read my good friend Lisa’s account of competing in last weekend’s inaugural Ironman Mont Tremblant course, I was inspired.

Finishing an Ironman—a day spent swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles— is an achievement worth commemorating with words beyond status updates. So I’m going old school and putting this up the only place I have to publish it: my backslidden food blog.

I blame this one.

When I decided last summer that I wanted this new Canadian race to be my first Ironman, I thought it would be perfect to have one of my first tri mentors there by my side. Back in 2007, as a fresh transplant to Syracuse, Lisa’s spin classes and passion for triathlon carried me through a relocation funk and sparked my urge to do a tri. By early 2008 I’d signed up for the Cazenovia Olympic-distance triathlon. Three years and a whole bunch increasingly long races later, 2012’s docket held two half iron-distance races (Wildflower and 70.3 Hawaii) and a local sprint triathlon in the spring, and last weekend’s Ironman Mont Tremblant in Quebec. It’s a typical path for a triathlete; the bug bites quickly and the sting goes deep.

I somehow managed to convince Lisa to trade her usual July Ironman in Lake Placid for this new, unknown Canadian race, and as our respective training programs kicked off in January, we began, totally unplanned, to exchange weekly emails about our training. We asked each other a million questions (“Does X happen to you?” “Do you feel like X too?”), shared advice, and wove the highs and lows of Ironman training into our correspondence. I felt like I had a training companion three time zones away. To bring closure to this seven-month journey, I’m going to step out of my comfort zone just this once and pound out my first race report, even if nobody reads it but me.

A few ounces of red at my aunt and uncle’s condo on race eve, fingers and toes freshly painted to match my bike.

Race Day Arrives

My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. on the heels of a fitful sleep (no surprise there, adrenaline and sleep do not make good companions). A new race day nutrition plan from the good people at QT2 Systems dictated an early morning meal of 2.5 cups of unsweetened applesauce (low glycemic index but also low fiber), protein powder (I used a Tropical Energizing Smoothie mix from Vega), and a banana. I’d blended the powder and the applesauce together the night before using the hand blender I’d packed, so all I had to do was open the fridge, scoop a ridiculous amount of pureed mash and a banana into my mouth, and hit the pillow for another 45 minutes of precious “I’m trying way too hard to sleep” shut-eye.

At 4:15, Mark prepared the contraband mug of coffee my nutrition consultant had declared off-limits. Even though I did end up trying a few new things on race day (one of triathlon’s biggest no no’s) a morning without coffee was one I simply wasn’t willing to try on my first Ironman. I was about to put my body through enough. How much more could I really ask of it?

This shot contains many of the essentials for a good race.

I suited up for battle in my Long Distance Tri Shorts and Singlet from 2XU, secured my timing chip around my ankle with safety pins, and tied my hair in a ponytail. I put full compression tights and a warm hoodie overtop of my ensemble, as it was chillier than it’s been in SoCal for some time. Having dropped off everything I might need for the bike and run portions the day prior (bike, helmet, cycling and running shoes, sunglasses, etc.) all that was left to cart down to the transition area was a backpack containing the two special needs bags I’d receive mid-bike and mid-run, and my swim gear (blueseventy googles, swim cap, Brave Soldier body lube, awesome new Doc’s surf earplugs, and pre-race nutrition). Phew, Ironman’s a mouthful. There’s so much to remember, and if I hadn’t had my lists and notes on my phone, I would’ve been a disaster waiting to happen. Not to mention my awesome pack-horse husband.

The perfect day began beautifully.

After dropping my special needs bags, pumping my tires in the bike corral, and throwing a last-minute pair of arm warmers into my T1 bag for what looked like a cooler-than-usual bike. I downed an Apple Pie Bonk Breaker at 6 am, an hour before I’d hit the water, and promptly got in line for the porta potties. Silently singing the praises of coffee, I emerged with a big smile for Mark. Despite the new day-before-the-race nutrition plan I’d tried (a HUGE carbohydrate-rich breakfast, medium-sized lunch, and tiny serving of pasta for dinner) things seemed to be working somewhat normally. We met up with Jordan, a friend who’d driven up from Ottawa at 3 a.m. to watch me race (!) and headed to the beach. I was freezing, so Jordan lent me his Syracuse University hoodie, which kept me warm and gave me a nice little nostalgic boost to boot.

Athletes and spectators poured onto the beach, to the usual upbeat Ironman soundtrack, and it was hard not to get distracted. I ran into a friend from SD, and pulled my wetsuit over my shorts and jersey while chatting with her, Mark, and Jordan. Then I stuffed my tights, hoodie, and walking shoes into the green plastic bag given to each athlete for their “morning clothes,” and tossed it into another bin. (Volunteers would later sort them out and return it to the transition tent.)

All kinds of colorful fun down at the swim start.

The clock inched closer to 7. Heading for the beach, an unplanned meeting with my parents surprised and delighted me. Seeing their faces stirred the emotional pot already teeming with both new and recognizable varieties of anxiety and excitement. I walked over the timing chip activator and found a spot on the soft sand. At 6:45, I ate the Raspberry-Chocolate GU Roctane I’d tucked under my wetsuit sleeve, pulled on my green cap, spit in and then rinsed my goggles with lake water, praying they wouldn’t fog up. And then–Lisa! A familiar face on a strip of sand packed with athletes, yet that was starting to feel surprisingly lonely. I noticed some moisture in her eyes, too, as the fighter jet fly-over signalled the arrival of our day. I never actually cried on race day, but I definitely didn’t expect to be closest to tears at the start. Maybe you’re more vulnerable at the beginning of a journey than you are at its end.

Love this shot! Thanks Jason Ward Studios for this and many other great edits.

The swim: just breathe

I’d been advised to start on the edge of the beach, but running into Lisa distracted me and we both ended up starting dangerously near the front and center of the pack. I ran into the water, dove in, and proceeded to get plowed over by what seemed like hundreds of bodies. About five minutes in, I had a mini freak out moment. Not a full-fledged panic attack, but I swallowed a bunch of water and my heart rate skyrocketed. I actually started looking around for a kayak to rest on, but instead put my head down and let the motion of a familiar activity soothe my nerves.

Another mental strategy that kept the chaos at bay was bringing to mind the countless open-water swims I’d done with my training partners (and good friends) Robert and Dane. As I focused on the tasks at hand—hips rotating, arms reaching, head turning—I just kept saying to myself, “That’s Robert right beside you.” “You’re just out swimming in the Cove on a Friday morning.” “It’s just like swimming Masters at the Y.” Little thoughts like these made the “big” moments of the race seem more manageable. I’ve read about the pre-race strategy of reviewing one’s training log for an extra kick of confidence, but what worked best for me on the day was reliving the moments of training in as much detail as I could.

Chaos.

I eventually found my rhythm in the water, and after what seemed like a very long time, began to hear the din of the crowd grow louder. I swam until the sandy lake bottom appeared beneath me, stood up, and ran over the timing mat at the one-hour, 12 minutes, and 16 seconds mark. I ran over to a crew of volunteers, laid down on the grass, and had my suit peeled from my legs in a flash of neoprene. It was my first time at a wetsuit stripper equipped race, and I loved it. I stuffed my goggles, earplugs, and cap into my wetsuit sleeve as I began the quarter-mile jog over soft red carpet to the transition tent. A nasty yet familiar cramp sunk its teeth into my right quad, and I made a mental note to take extra salt as soon as I hit the bike.

The bike: a trusty steed

I tried to take my time in transition, having heard that calm breeds success in Ironman. I found my bag easily (thanks to the strips of bright-blue towel I tied to the top) and carried it into the women’s change area. I put on socks, my helmet, and Oakley Commits as a helpful volunteer sprayed me with sunscreen. I grabbed my shoes as the volunteer insisted on putting all my swim stuff into the bag for me, shooing me off with an insistent “go go go!” I found my bike, put on my shoes, and wheeled Amelie out for her victory lap.

Mounting the saddle is one of my favorite parts of a race. Only the last 100 yards of the run and the finish line itself can compete with the feeling of climbing on a well-oiled machine you’ve spent so many hours riding through the countryside in the company of friends. As my strongest leg and the one I enjoy most, the bike always feels like a solid, trustworthy companion propelling me farther and faster than I could ever go alone. If the ancient elements (Water, Earth, Air, and Fire) applied to this sport, the bike would be my Air. Light and swift, cycling is a constant play between smooth efficiency and pure, fierce strength.

Matchy matchy! (Photo courtesy of FinisherPix.com)

One thing that I didn’t expect was how quickly the bike leg flew by. The rolling hills thick with evergreen and the freshly paved roads were a welcome change from parched San Diego county, and I soaked in the scenery with every passing mile. Riding through the town of St. Jovite, its narrow streets lined with spectators, was how I imagine riding in Europe must be. The wind picked up but was never unmanageable, and looping past the crowds in town four times brought me fresh energy each time.

My Garmin 910XT reminded me to eat every 40 minutes—all I had to do was look at the piece of paper I’d taped to the bottle between my aerobars to see what was on the menu. Bike time 00:00 and 00:40 each brought half a peanut butter Powerbar (race day “new thing” number … ?) At one-hour 20 I ate a Honey Graham Halo Bar, and starting at 2:00:00, I began to taper off the solid food, switching to a caffeinated gel and salt pills only (extra of those given the annoying quad cramp that wouldn’t go away.) These solid food sources were in addition to the three full bottles I started out with on my bike, each containing either two scoops of EFS mixed with water, or a NUUN tablet/CarboPro combination. (Each of these mixtures provided the same electrolyte/carbohydrate combo as the sports drink my nutrition consultant had recommended given my sweat rate. I’d never used that drink in training, however, and I didn’t want to try something that major for the first time on race day.) What you consume on the bike is actually more important for setting you up for a good run, not just fueling the bike leg itself—another thing I learned from my coach, Mike Plumb.

At the halfway point I received my special needs bag, which I’d stocked with two fresh bottles of fluid, a Kona-Mocha flavored EFS Liquid Shot, and a Ziploc bag of Korean seaweed. It was something I thought might make me smile (something a friend had encouraged me to think about when packing that bag), and I must say, it was fun jamming that salty, crispy, green stuff in my mouth as I passed hoards of spectators on the sidelines.

I can say now that my QT2 fueling plan worked remarkably well, despite not having much time to practice it in training, which was no fault of theirs. I got a jarring abdominal cramp around mile 85, which made breathing difficult and slowed me down considerably. I’m guessing this was just from loading my body with more than I’d conditioned it to in training. Given the seven or eight times I peed on the bike, I was adequately hydrated, despite finishing the bike one full bottle short of the six I was supposed to consume altogether. By mile 100, I was really ready to be vertical again—strange for this cycling-focused triathlete. A few more deceptively steep hills on Chemin Duplessis to put under the wheels, and five hours, 38 minutes and 58 seconds later, I was back where I started. And thanks to some key trainer workouts from my coach (and his 180-190 watts range guide for race day) not much worse for wear.

The marathon: taking care of business

I dismounted, passed my bike to a volunteer (gotta love that about Ironman) stopped to remove my shoes, and hobbled back into the transition tent. I grabbed my bag, exchanged cycling shoes for my Pearl Izumi Kissakis, popped a visor on my head and stuffed my bike gear into the bag. A row of portapotties appeared like a mirage, and two volunteers slathered me with sunscreen while I waited for a vacancy. It was clouding over, but you can never have too much sunscreen (right Baz Luhrman?) I was in and out of that portapotty in a flash, emerging with an even bigger smile than my morning stop had warranted. The abdominal cramp was a thing of the past. I saw Jordan in that first few hundred yards, and his cheering giving me much-needed boost. A few steps later, a large black man was bent over the fencing yelling “Go Jennifer! Go Jenny!” in a thick French accent. My grimace broke into a huge smile, which seemed to whip the spectators into even more of a love-fest. I kept on trucking, trying not to let the thought of a full freaking marathon get me down. Just a long, slow, easy run. Take your time.

Running (and talking) in some light rain.

Mark, my parents, and my aunt and uncle surprised me on the hill at around mile one, their ecstatic cheering providing yet another boost. This wasn’t going to be a boring 26-miler. There was a huge family here to pull me through, and I was going to milk it for all it was worth. I’ve heard it said that an Ironman marathon is about 80 percent mental. I’d up that to 90. If it weren’t for some of those spectators—one of them looking right into my eyes and saying “you are an inspiration, Jennifer!”—I’m not sure where I might’ve gone, mentally. A massive thanks goes out to all of them, and their shouts and signs: “Allez allez allez!” “You’re part of the 0.01%!” etc.

It’s always hard for me to consume calories on the run, hence the importance of getting in enough on the bike. I often develop acid reflux—an incredibly painful tightening of my esophagus around mile 14-15, a problem I still haven’t solved. I ate half a banana at the first aid station, which sat well, and sipped on the on-course drink (Ironman Perform) and my Liquid Shot when I could. I felt surprisingly strong on the first 10K, but at the half-marathon point back in town, noticed that an on-again, off-again pain in my left knee had flared up again—the chief physical niggle of this particular race. Thankfully, the right quad cramp was long gone. Yay, salt and seaweed!

On the advice of a pro triathlete friend, I had put a bottle of Ensure Plus in my run special needs bag. Channeling my inner 80-year-old, I downed it, along with two Advils, in hopes of staving off the knee pain. (Both were additional race-day firsts, but they proved wise decisions as I dug into my second half-marathon.) At one of the next aid stations, I pulled my left calf sleeve up over my knee and jammed some ice cubes in. Eventually the Advil kicked in and it never got any worse. Thanks to the 300-plus calories in the Ensure, I didn’t need to take advantage of many more of the aid stations from then on in.

The miles between 13 and 18 formed the toughest chunk of my day, mentally. Once I hit the final turn-around at the end of Le P’tit Train du Nord (an old railway bed converted to a cushy recreational trail), I was charged by how little there was left to go: “It’s just a six-mile run around Cardiff.” (Beep and buzz of the watch.) “It’s a five-mile run on your lunch break!” (Beep, buzz.) “It’s an easy four-mile recovery run with Mark.” (Beep, buzz).

And finally, the last two miles showed up like honored guests at a party, and the roaring crowds began to break the grip of my fatigued muscles and run-zombie brain. My cadence slowed and I began to take huge strides forward on the cobblestone, feeling like a professional athlete as hands reached forward to high-five me in my last push. Borrowed energy carried me to the illuminated finish arch. I heard the author Paul Auster say the following on NPR interview yesterday: “Some people take their bodies for granted. They just sort of live in them.” It’s hard to be an Ironman athlete and be that kind of person.

Off the ground.

It took me 11 hours and 19 minutes on the nose to enter the Ironman fold, and suddenly, as quickly as it had arrived, it was all over. Mark medalled me, and escorted me with another volunteer to the finisher’s area where beer, pizza, and all sorts of of other necessities were on offer. Cuddled up in my foil blanket, all I wanted was an ice-cold Coke. I immersed myself in the sweat-soaked moment I knew would fly by so quickly. As I hugged my dad I thought back to the first long run (seven miles) he convinced me to do with him years ago in Birds Hill Park. I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. As I hugged my mom, I thought of the model of health and fitness she’s been throughout my life. As I hugged Mark, I thought of all the post-workout lattes, bike maintenance help, much-needed company on runs, and the great interest he’s taken in the sport and my participation in it. These types of achievements don’t happen in a void, and I am very grateful.

Smiling and still upright.

Six days later, I’m back in our Cardiff apartment, coming down gently off the high something like that infuses into your life. My recovery has been easy—I haven’t been as sore or broken as I thought I might be. As per usual, I’m taking one solid week to eat whatever I’m craving, which always makes me return to healthy eating with a new appreciation. Save for a quick Cove swim yesterday morning, I’m waiting one solid week to swim, bike, or run again, and I’m trying not to think about my next athletic goal. Ironman is so much more than a day, it’s a many-month journey; the feeling of all that coming to a halt is jolting. Hopefully by focusing on the things that got waylaid by my training I’ll be able to temporarily fill the hours once occupied by swimming, biking, and running. But after having completed an Ironman, I can confidently say that for as long as my body will put up with it, I’d like to keep my membership to this club, thank you very much.

So here it is, down on “paper:” my account of 11 hours and 19 minutes doing three of the activities I love most in the great outdoors, with some of the people I love most—and a whole bunch of like-minded strangers—along for the ride.

Taking a bite out of 140.6 miles.

fueled by food: two years of tri-training

In Wired magazine’s Living by Numbers issue last summer, Gary Wolf wrote an article on what tracking every facet of our lives might look like. That feature’s play on the cover was what made me buy the issue in the first place, and I got a kick out of his precise record of everything from hours slept to milligrams of caffeine consumed. As he explained the degree to which “numbers are making their way into the smallest crevices of our lives,” I started thinking about my own relationship with personal data and how interesting it would be to have access to all these little statistics of life, from the mundane (how many cups of coffee), to the morose (how many hours spent waiting), to the pleasurable (how many hugs).

Trusting that others would find this equally interesting, Wolf started The Quantified Self, a website that tracks the release of web-based apps devoted to personal data gathering. This is all, of course, nothing new to athletes, who Wolf says are among the pioneers of this emerging culture of self-tracking. The training log has been a mainstay of the athletic world: an obsessive-compulsive’s (read: triathlete’s) best friend. Data made its way into my number-shy heart too, as triathlon revealed to me that everyone can learn to care about things they have no interest in if those things become useful to them. Perhaps this is obvious, but this is how it was for math and numbers when I tied them to activities I love.


This post marks the two-year anniversary of when I started reliably tracking my own athletic data. Maybe it’s more for me than my readers, who come looking for recipe ideas. But since my kitchen has cooled down (and shrunk!) significantly since relocating for a new job, I have other things to share right now. And as any multisport enthusiast can tell you, food and an active lifestyle are not only inextricably linked, but incredibly dependent on one another. (I’ve heard it said that the love of food is one of the chief reasons for getting into triathlon in the first place.)

On August 19th 2008, I started keeping track of my training (for my first marathon) on Runner’s World‘s Training Peaks-powered web log. I’d already trained for and raced my first Olympic-distance triathlon in the eight months leading up to that, but I don’t have those training hours recorded anywhere but on papers, long thrown away. On August 19th I became one of those people who goes out for a quick 4.62-miles, and logs 56.2 mile bike rides on the weekend. It was all about precision. Well, to a point: I stopped at just the basic record, forgoing elevation, calorie, mood, and meal trackers for somewhat of a more simplistic approach.

Still, it’s fun to look at the totals today, from the other side of that “can I do a triathlon?” experiment. It’s fun to look at all the memories, journeys, and goals, whether measured in miles, friendships, or bowls of popcorn and glasses of beer.

And so here it is, a probably-not-exact account of how my body kept busy over the last two years, not counting step classes with mom, walking to school or work, yoga, weight training, hikes with friends, snowshoeing with the hubby, or traversing new paths through Syracuse and D.C. No food. No recipes. Just numbers, glorious numbers.

Run: 1366 miles/257 hours

Bike: 2243 miles/168 hours

Swim: 57906 yards/103 hours

Race: 142 miles/17 hours

Total: 3784 miles/545

letter to a city loved

Dear Syracuse,

I regret not taking the time to say a proper goodbye. When I left for the bright lights of D.C., I bid you a brief farewell, and then let other things distract my mind (and stomach!) I wasn’t sure if or when I’d see you again, and so left the goodbye—as so many others in my life—pending.

So I’m back to say thank you for (among many other things) nurturing my love of food. Some people will be surprised by this, especially my friends and fellow eaters in D.C., New York, and L.A. But you, quiet Syracuse, gave birth not only to this blog, but to many of my culinary discoveries and triumphs. It wouldn’t be right to leave without paying tribute to you and your surrounding Upstate lands.

Looking back over those early entries, newly transplanted to your Northeastern soil, I can’t help but smile at all the firsts I experienced with you: cooking my first free-range chicken, en cocotte, making the foods I missed the most about home (like this coffee cake), and perfecting my never-the-same-way-twice granola method. You’re where I had a unique gift of time: time to learn to bake a proper loaf of bread, time to experiment with homemade energy bars until they were good enough to share, time to ferment things like kefir, kombucha, and kimchi. Time to try things like triathlon, which upped my need for tasty fuel.

I’m going to miss a lot of things about you. First-time experiences, like fall apple-picking and sauce-making.

And though everyone’s promised unparalleled farmer’s market here in California, all your little gems, tucked away in alleyways. Shops like Samir’s on East Genesee Street, where we bought fresh halwa, cheap olives, and excellent cheese of all varieties on a regular basis. (When I asked at an international grocery store where we could find fresh halwa in San Diego yesterday, the clerk pointed us to the packaged stuff—boo!) Oh yes, and the Oriental House of Syracuse on Erie—the only good thing the boulevard had to offer—where we found this syrup that was better than any bottled ginger beer out there. (Add it to soda water and you’ve got your brew!)

My new farmer’s market might be five blocks from the coast, but I’ll miss my weekend trips to your Regional Farmer’s Market, where we could stock up on free-range bison meat—something I have yet to see here—and where I got the ingredients for my first adventure in canning. And the Syracuse Real Food Co-op, a tiny place that was always bright and welcoming and only a few blocks away? I’ll miss that too, where I could always discover cool new everyday ingredients like this slab of tempeh.

And, of course, your restaurants. You may not have the French Laundry or an Alinea, but you have Eva’s for perogies almost as good as my great-grandmother used to make. You have Lao Village for deliciously fresh Thai. And you are home to our mainstay, Alto Cinco, which I never posted on, but who’s burritos and beer fueled my first triathlon.

You delivered so many new experiences, like eating a whole fish at China Road (a restaurant I stupidly only visited once), and my first life-changing BBQ at the oft-patronized Dinosaur—home to many pig-out nights with friends (exhibit A) and family (exhibit B).

And your little hole-in-the-walls that only friends could turn you on to, like the Mexican restaurant in the back of a Tipp Hill bar called Steve’s and the greasy breakfast joint, Mother’s Cupboard in Eastwood. It’s these little spots that made me feel at home in your streets in a relatively short period of time.

Yes, North County San Diego is pretty. The ocean is a nice thing to wake up to, and I wouldn’t trade that bike ride for a thousand walks down Euclid. The temperature here is a calm glass lake to your turbid temperatures, and there’s more variety being near to a big city than I’ve yet had the chance to explore. But it’s not home here yet, and while I’m in that frame of mind I wanted to thank you for all the unexpectedly memorable experiences you provided. You were a stop along the way, but also a signpost, and I will look back on my time with you as I do all the other great places I have known.

With fondness,

Jen

eating my way west, part I

“Whirlwind.” “Roller coaster.” “Bittersweet.” None of the moving clichés are right. Each time, packing feels like something vaguely familiar—something I should be good at by now but for some reason am not.

For all the times I’ve moved, I really should be a pro: At 20, loading up two decades into a U-Haul in my parents’ driveway; at 23 to the apartment where I’d live alone for the first—and only—time; at 24 to a mountain lodge and back; at 25 from a ex-boyfriend’s house to a friend’s sun-room and then to Vancouver; at 26 to Upstate New York with my new husband; at 29 to D.C. for yet another solo jaunt.

Orange-zest sticky bun heaven (Pannikin, Leucadia, CA)

That pile of boxes—life squirreled away in cardboard—brings as many puffs of nostalgia as it does dust. Piles of papers and coins, clothes to give away, friends to see—so many lasts. It’s not fun being so well-versed in goodbyes.

Not that I’m unhappy: As many of you know, I’ve just landed what I can fairly call a dream job at a triathlon magazine in San Diego. It all happened so fast: an email, a telephone call, and a fly-out interview. Back in D.C. I wrapped things up, re-connected with my similarly jet-setting husband, and packed the Jetta for Syracuse.

How does one keep a food blog at a time like this? Not well, I’m afraid. But bear with me: Southern Californian delicacies are on the menu for the next season of freshcrackedpepper.

Curry mussels (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

For now then, the story of how one food-loving wanderer eats her way west.

While in San Diego for my interview, the coast established itself as a mecca of bee pollen/hippie cuisine, flirt-worthy sushi, and orange-zest sticky buns on the ocean (pictured above).

Back in D.C., I had to choose a place for my “last supper” in the city that had been so good to me (bike accident battle scars aside!) I thought back fondly on all the cupcakes, ethnic morsels, and new experiences (like brewing beer for the first time) D.C. had offered. Indeed, it was more than just a six-month stopover between Syracuse’s ports and San Diego’s harbor: it was a satisfying sojourn in and of itself.

Spinach Salad with Cocoa-Balsamic Vinaigrette (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

I settled on Café St. Ex in the U Street neighborhood, for their cute street patio and the great food I’d had at their sister business, Bar Pilar. Our meal of mussels, salad, and a Fried Green Tomato B.L.T. was summery and simple, a good memory to part on. In the very near future, I’ll be experimenting with how to incorporate cocoa into my balsamic vinaigrette.

And their sweet potato fries with just a touch of sweet-salty cinnamon? For those I might be willing to endure a humid D.C. summer. Although I’m sure the West Coast will have a suitable contender.

Fried Green Tomato B.L.T. (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

Back in Syracuse, eating quickly became a mindless task in a long list of to-do’s. Canned baked beans and back-0f-the-freezer discoveries were supplemented with the summer’s first corn (decent, though no sweet ears of late July) and the generous grills of good friends. I think beer might have supplied a higher percentage of my daily calories than is advisable, but my triathlon friends (not to mention all those boxes) helped me keep the negative effects to a minimum.

We set sail yesterday for our cross-country adventure, flung back into the arms of McDonald’s (recommended for their free wireless only), Starbucks (for the only suitable road coffee), Chipotle (yum), and friends along the way (rhubarb ice cream—thanks, Kristen!) After tonight’s quick stopover in Springfield for our dear friends’ wedding, we’ll join up with old Route 66, John Steinbeck’s “Mother Road,” and be on our way to the Texas panhandle.

More to come.

a Christmas well spent

It’s the 25th of December and I’m not in Winnipeg. I’m not even in Canada. I’m in Massachusetts, a state I’ve never visited and still need help spelling. Perched on the edge of the Berkshires, a small range of hills in New England, Mark and I are spending our first Christmas ever “just us.” Each of us had previously spent only one Christmas away, so we’re not exactly practiced in family-free holidays.

Risotto with mini Brussels sprouts, Vermont sausage and blue cheese

As I reflect on our time so far, I must say that it has been great. We’ve stayed up and slept late, watched movies and meandered around pretty towns. We’ve visited small-town bookstores, cafes, and gourmet food shops. We’ve sipped eggnog at 2 am while stringing popcorn for our “tree” (a fake plant in the hotel room).

P.E.I. mussels with white wine, garlic and butter; salad with pecans, blue cheese and pears; Hob Nob Pinot Noir.

This Christmas will be memorable for many reasons: the quiet, the togetherness, and of course, the food. My mom’s (and mom-in-law’s) food this has not even paralleled. But it has been ours.  We’ve dined out on fancy fare and stayed in to cobble together what we can on a tiny electric range.

This smorgasbord post is not meant to provide any inspiring holiday dishes, but to help me remember what we ate on this first Christmas—gathered around a cheap pine table, happy, but yet so far from home.

George DuBoeuf 5$ Beaujolais

Above there are pictures of our first few meals in our unit: Risotto (our favorite throw-together meal) with mini Brussels sprouts, Vermont sausages and fantastic blue cheese. We also managed to steam 2 lbs of mussels in the small saucepan that came in our kitchen—a tasty concoction with its garlic and white wine broth, pear and pecan salad, and local bread. Most of these two meals were procured at Guido’s, a helpful and welcoming gourmet grocer in nearby Pittsfield.

Our first meal out (after a chilly day spent walking and browsing) was at Fin Sushi in Lenox. Our expectations were high, as the restaurant had been featured by a prominent seafood writer in The Atlantic. Our appetizer was pleasing: three large prawns stretched out on skewers and wrapped in what seemed like thin tempura sheets. The accompanying sweet chili dipping sauce was delicious, if not particularly unique. Our Fire Dragon roll featured bbq’d eel, cucumber, and avocado, and was topped with perfectly-done torched salmon sashimi. I admired the addition of pea shoots in our Crispy Yellow Tail rolls, but overall, Fin was more “standard sushi” than life changing. Maybe the more sushi one eats, the harder one is to please.

Crispy shrimp appetizer at Fin Sushi, Lenox, M.A.

Dinner for two: Crispy Yellow Tail and Fire Dragon rolls

We saved our special meal out for Christmas Eve, and taking the advice of our mussel-monger reserved a table for two at Perigee in South Lee, M.A. The contemporary, mid-scale restaurant is only five weeks old and boasts “Berkshire cuisine.” We settled on two bowls of their French Onion Soup (made with Berkshire Brewing Co. porter beer–good, but not as good as my Mom’s!), an order of their crab cakes (delicious), and two plates of the Juniper-scented Venison Osso Buco.

I was a bit worried when the main courses arrived looking more like country beef stews than something a fine restaurant might serve. But once I dug into the first shank and the meat melted off the bone into its moat of lightly juniper-scented stew, I was changed. Once we were given our marrow spoons, I proceeded to dig into the bone, excavating every last morsel of fatty, earthy-sweet tissue. Their wine recommendation—Château Fleur Badon St. Emilion (a Bordeaux)—was juicy and bright, but a too light to keep up with the heavy texture of the venison. Service was sufficiently cordial, but a bit awkward and uneducated. (What kind of server uses a plastic rabbit-ears corkscrew anymore?)

new england crab cakes starter

venison osso bucco with root vegetables

the menu at Perigee

Never a fan of the ubiquitous dessert tray that our server proffered, we headed back to Lee to try out Chez Nous. Their offerings were much more appealing, and we settled on a Blondie sundae with sea-salted caramel, rum-soaked raisins and Tahitian vanilla ice cream. Second in line was a chocolate-hazelnut Yule Log rolled in ganache and adorned with “traditional garnishes,” including a meringue-turned-toadstool and candied orange peel.

They were the perfect hits of sweetness to keep us up through the gorgeous service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Pittsfield.

After this, I could forever renounce the Brownie

the Yule Log

Today, after a luxurious night’s sleep, we feasted on eggnog-spiked apple-bread French toast and those same Vermont sausages. With apologies to my brother-in-law (whose eggnog scrambled eggs I apparently rebuffed last year), we were delighted by the leftover egg-and-nog batter we scrambled up in the pan. For dinner, we sauteed turkey livers with loads of red-wine caramelized onions. Later tonight if I’m missing home too much, at least I’ll have my Ward family nuts n’ bolts to offer solace.

And while I’m sorry that I haven’t been sharing many recipes as of late, I have been enjoying tracing this shifting life of mine, and tracking the noshes and nibbles that keep bringing me such delight.

“And they all went to bed tired and happy.” – line from my favorite childhood Christmas story