Sunday, March 22, 2009

Hotel Stories: Food

By about our third month of living in our hotel room, I realized that food was to become a big issue. Of course, in our family, food has always been a big issue. It's more than just eating to live. I have contemplated the "live to eat" alternative we have chosen, and wonder if the sin of gluttony will be a problem--hoping that gluttony is about over eating and not over-thinking about eating! One of my daughter's friends said to us, "You're the kind of people I can feel comfortable talking with about, um, anti-oxidants!" I considered that a compliment.

Anyway, as hotel life deepens, so does the necessity for eating in restaurants. That means we get to eat all the high-fat, high-salt, high-calorie food our little hearts desire. We try to be conservative because: (1) we are somewhat on an expense account, and we care about our company, (2) we know restaurant food has all the "bad stuff" we just mentioned, and (3) we don't want health issues and weight gain, which is already happening.

Worse than eating in restaurants are the hotel offerings--which are mostly (maybe all) pre-packaged foods. Breakfast has a wide variety of choices like waffles, eggs, sausage, cereal, bagels, with all fixings like cream cheese, salsa, and that excuse for cheese that comes out of a machine and covers nachos and hot dogs at baseball games, as well as pretend maple syrup, which is really high fructose, and peanut butter, which is really who knows what! The flour is white, the sugar is white, the food is highly processed, and, frankly, although we hate to be complainers, it is just plain not good for us--or anybody, in fact. But, we don't see most people caring about that. In fact, my request for Romaine lettuce was met with curious expressions, as if I were making some sort of alien demand.

The hotel used to provide dinners four times a week. It has been reduced to three, and one includes menu descriptions like cookies and milk! Although that may be enjoyable, it is NOT dinner. The other choices are potato bar, crackers, cheese and wine, and sometimes mac and cheese, chicken tenders, barbecue or stuffed peppers.

We cozied up to the hospitality director and actually talked her into chicken and broccoli once. That brought out a crowd. They seemed to know that broccoli had been missing from their diets too. But that director has mysteriously disappeared. Hmm. Needless to say, we won't be losing weight or winning any nutrition contests at these dinnertimes.

Not showing up for this generous hotel hospitality also has its pitfalls. The staff has come to know us, and they appear to even like us. When we disappear for days from these meal times, they ask if we are all right. Once they asked Jay whether I was being unsociable not coming to breakfast. I told him to tell them that I was in my room eating my Kashi. The response was that I could at least come down and say hello.

Oh my! Now I have a family here expecting me to be connecting on a regular basis. Ten months here has removed the anonymity one usually finds in a hotel stay.

Cooking too has its problems. Yes, we have a small kitchen. We shop for groceries, trying to cut down on the restaurant and the hotel dinners. But, my cooking style requires more than heating up packaged and pre-prepared food. We don't microwave anything but coffee, and the counter space is dwindling. Storage of groceries is less than adequate for what I consider a necessary pantry stock.

For instance, I chop--fresh veggies and herbs mostly. I also make bread and pizza and other things requiring counter space. That means I need herbs and spices and a place to chop. My space at the hotel consists of a few inches in front of the coffee pot--if the toaster is not sitting there. The other small counter is loaded with packages of nuts, dried fruit, bread and bags of granola, and our box of supplements. I still do chop, but it is not motivating to do this around all of the groceries. Plus, getting in more pantry provisions only takes up the remaining space, so I resist shopping for an entire stock of herbs and spices, veggie and chicken stocks, rice, pasta , flour, sugar, honey, and other pantry items, but I find myself missing them terribly.

I won't even go into how much I miss my cast iron skillet, my stock pot, and my equipment--zesters, garlic press, micro-planes, graters, steamer, blender, and food processor. This isn't whimsical! I need to cook. I love to cook. We must have vegetables! What choices do we have if I don't cook? Restaurant and hotel veggies are smothered in butter and grease, and we just cannot do that for months at a time, and don't want castor oil to become a regular pantry stock.

What vegetables do average Americans eat? It appears to be corn, potatoes, and those little carrots you buy in a bag, and, of course, iceberg lettuce drenched in high fructose corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated oil. Those, my friends, are NOT vegetables! And white breads are not substitutes for whole grains. I need fresh kale, and spinach, and Romaine, and beets, and Swiss chard, green beans and broccoli and cabbage, parsley and watercress and arugula and...well, all of the real foods God made for us to eat. I need crushed tomatoes, garlic, curry and balsamic vinegar and EVOO (if you need me to explain that, stop reading NOW), and basil with fresh mozzerlla, and garden tomatoes, and olives and peppers, red onion and capers, cinnamon and ginger. I need coarse-milled whole grain breads, to be found commercially only at Great Harvest Bread Company. That molasses-colored stuff they pass off for whole wheat bread at the supermarket is NOT really as whole as they pretend.

And, I haven't even started on fresh fish. Yes, I can get wonderful New England clam chowder and clam and lobster rolls. But grilled salmon and ahi, and really fresh ocean fish like perch and cod are hard to find prepared at restaurants without lots of fat, even in Connecticut. That means I have to find a purveyor of fresh fish, which you would think would be easy in New England. I have my eye on one possibility in East Granby--Valley Fish Company. After talking with the owner, Frank Pericolosi, I am hopeful that this will be a find. But, my daughter informs me that "poor people do not buy ahi." That conjured up images of Marie Antoinette and cake. I think she means she is making some sort of sacrifice since leaving the nest, and I am sure she means that the price of grocery shopping these days has brought most of us back to basics, even sacrificial choices. Well, I am basic. I use whatever is left in the pantry and fridge to create something out of nothing--a talent which brings me joy. But first you have to have a pantry. Note: I heard John Tesh report that the farm-raised tilapia is loaded with BAD Omega-6's and raises cholesterol, and should not be eaten by people prone to asthma, arthritis and other inflammatory problems. Check it out on his site.

Here's a good fish story to illustrate what I am talking about: During my month at our IL home, while I was doing taxes, I created a new dish for my daughter and me. I had to use up the stuff in the freezer and fridge so it wouldn't spoil before my return in April. I found frozen perch, a bag of coconut, and milk and cooked pasta (spaghetti), and I still have all my good spices in the cupboard. I poached the fish in the milk, added coconut, then topped it with the pasta and added cumin and curry. The fish flaked into the milk and then combined with the pasta and spices. Served in our shrimp-red deep Italian pottery bowls (which I miss so much), this became a new treat. My daughter said, "Wow, if they served this at Red Lobster, I would never order anything else." Now, that's a vote of confidence.

Anyway, back in the hotel, I do not have curry and cumin, or coconut to be used up, or even frozen perch. And, we have no Italian pottery, which again sounds snobbish, and like I am complaining, but really, hotel dishes are not inviting, and dishes matter in good eating. I can buy the spices, but the bottles will have to be stored next to the pots in the cupboard or beside the toaster, which has to be put back in the cupboard to make room for the chopping.

Okay, I know it sounds ungrateful! We are eating well, but not healthfully. Something has to change. Unless we decide to eat out six nights a week, I have to resolve the cooking supply and space problems. Oh, and expense. Have any of you been grocery shopping lately? I haven't, at least on trips intended for really eating at home. A trip to Big Y, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's was shocking. Two people have a hard time buying real food for under $200 a shopping trip. I am not talking about caviar and champagne. I am merely talking produce, whole grains, olive oil ($24 all by itself) and fresh fish. Ugh. This is unreal. Have food prices really doubled in the past year? I do not have $800 to $1000 a month for a food budget. I can't imagine having these prices with growing children in the house.

These exorbitant prices bring us to the temptation to settle for the cheese and crackers up at the hotel's Gate House. But, I just can't. I'm not a snob. Okay, I AM a snob. But I cannot allow my weight to push up any more.

Exercise! That is part of the solution. That will be my next hotel story.

Until then, ta ta.