Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

Archive for December 2009


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Most people think there are only two holidays right before New Year’s Eve. They’re wrong. There are, in fact, three holidays — Christmas Day, Boxing Day and Shopping Day. But maybe it’s just our family that has three holidays.

Neither my sister nor I have the proper killer instinct to brave Boxing Day crowds. Indeed, were the truth be told, there are a thousand other things we would rather do on the day after Christmas. Personally, I spend the morning of December 26 each year raising a mug of steaming Columbian brew to James Mason of Franklin, Mass. On Dec. 26, 1865, he was awarded a patent for the coffee percolator.

Meanwhile, there are people who plan their Boxing Day all year in order to be up and out the door early, lining up in anticipation of the opening bell at the mall. They will finish all their Christmas shopping by 6 p.m. — that’s for Christmas, 2010. More power to them. In all likelihood, they will be too tired to clog the stores on the following day.

Our family doesn’t have the requisite number of household help in order to fulfill the spirit of the first Boxing Days when the servants were given the day off — after they had prepared a cold repast for the household — and were presented with Christmas presents (the so-called “Christmas boxes”) by the master and mistress.

Frankly, I haven’t seen a servant since the last Upstairs, Downstairs revival and nobody delivers anything on December 26, so the tipping for various services must be done before Christmas, not after.

The lure of 70 percent off in some stores just isn’t enough to convince me to wade into crowds exceeded in size and ferocity only by those in Toronto’s Bloor and Yonge subway interchange the year the subway lines froze (literally) or, at any time of the year, in Filene’s basement in Boston right next to the sales racks of designer fashions.

In lieu of servants, we have to make do with the willing helping hands of visiting relatives, pressed into service in exchange for food, drink and entertainment. Kelly, my sister’s youngest child, is the best cook in the family. She spent the week before Christmas at her parents’ doing all the requisite baking, including a peanut-butter based concoction that certainly must have a proper name, but is known in the family only by one name: crack. Such are its powers of addiction. I managed the entire five-day visit without succumbing to its sugary charms. I rewarded myself with a small libation of Scotch whiskey. Or two.

What do we do on Boxing Day if none of us shops? There’s the annual use-up-all-leftovers plan, cleverly disguised as an annual Boxing Day party for friends. The only entrance fee is a willingness to sing carols, with a spirited argument made by the men in the family as to who will have the privilege of singing Five Golden Rings during The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Even though I lack the proper guerilla shopper gene, all the other equipment is in its correct place and goes into full flight the day after Boxing Day — on December 27. Such is my faith in luck that I believe if I am “meant” to own something — like a brand-new black suede and grey fox fur coat from Holt Renfrew in Edmonton, sold to me by the charming Dianne, egged on by my sister, Susan, and Kelly who had come shopping with us — then it will be there, in the right size, when I chance upon it. Really, truly, the coat just pounced on me while I was innocently passing by, minding my own business. Well, it pounced after Dianne undid the locked theft-proof chain through the sleeves and once I tried it on, it glued itself to my being and demanded I purchase it as a reward. A reward for what, I’m not sure, but I’m coming up with some excuse.

Having a shopping tradition the day after the frenzied hordes have mauled their way through the shops means not having to agonize over a choice of two or more items on sale. With luck, there’s usually only one available. And having to go to three shoe stores just to buy a couple of measly pairs of pumps (one purple suede, the other black grosgrain) requires a certain amount of enthusiasm for the outing which Susan and I manage to find each year.

I know, I know, it’s a heavy responsibility, but someone has to do it. We aren’t welcome at the house, anyway, so we make ourselves scarce. Maybe “welcome” is the wrong word, but as the Shopping Day tradition evolved, so too did Men’s Movie Day. The guys head for the “man cave” — i.e. the basement — with its giant HD television and surround-sound and watch whatever gory, bloody, noisy movies they found under the tree this year. They prefer not to be annoyed by the sound of a woman’s voice yelling from upstairs to turn the volume down, so really, we’re doing them a favour by shopping. At least that’s what Susan and I have always told each other.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with my campaign to lose weight and get fit. Well, maybe just a little. If I hadn’t lost 10 pounds in the past three months, that coat would never have fit. And if I hadn’t been conscious of exercise, I would never have had the stamina for a day of shopping and walking and, in particular, trying on clothing which is an exercise in itself. If laughter counts as exercise, this Christmas season has been a particularly energetic one, including the moment when Kelly, who was waiting for her mother and me to emerge from two different fitting rooms, looked up at the dress I had tried on and said: “That makes you look like a librarian dominatrix.” While the thought was an interesting contradiction in terms, I didn’t buy the dress. Nor did I buy the one that made me look like a frosted layer cake.

But I did buy a kit containing an exercise ball, an instruction booklet and, purportedly, a DVD to show those of us who are exercise challenged how to do the routines. Alas, when I got it home, the DVD wasn’t in the box, so back to the store it goes. The “floor” exercises will now have to wait. Oh, drat.

Laden with purchases, the three of us repaired to a small boite in downtown Edmonton, had a “girlie” drink each (identified as anything that requires a martini glass rimmed in sugar), a small plate of appetizers, admired each other’s purchases, and headed home for more leftovers.

Tomorrow, Ted and I head for the mountains for a peaceful end to both the year and the first decade of a new millennium.

NEXT: A decade has passed and everyone is looking back and making lists.


Written by Catherine Ford

December 28, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment

I knew it was a lucky day when I scored a parking place right outside the front door of Innovative Health Group, the fitness team for the Calgary Herald Health Club’s 12-week diet and fitness challenge. Of course, it was 7:45 a.m. on a Saturday, but I’ll take any indication of fortune I can find.

On the other side of the door stood the incredibly perky and fit staff, including head cheerleader, personal trainer and general manager Stan Peake, whose encouragement helped everyone in the program. (I’ve even forgiven him for the boot camp yelling. Well, almost.)

When the first century BCE Roman epic poet, Virgil, wrote in the Aenid that “fortune favours the brave,” it’s a certain bet he could not have envisioned life 21 centuries later, when “brave” has come to mean just about any personal endeavor. What Virgil meant when he stole the phrase from an earlier writer, was that the goddess Fortuna looked kindly on those who took risks and decisive action. Personally, I favour the quiet kind of bravery, the kind needed to conquer fears and make changes and to do so without expectations of glory beyond personal satisfaction.

So luck is what one makes through effort. Or, in the worlds of Woody Allen: “70 per cent of success in life is showing up.” (The so-called lucky parking space nearly proved itself something else again when, in order to drive away, I had to employ the winter-city tactic of rocking my car back and forth to extract it from the icy ruts that have formed on our streets and in the curbside gutters in the past couple of weeks.)

Saturday was the final weight-in for the Herald Health Club and its at-home participants, like me. As everyone said, and I echoed — where did 12 weeks go all of a sudden? Life gets like that, the older you get, the faster it goes. And when did I have the time to hold down a full-time job? Retirement was supposed to be a time of leisure.

I was prepared for good news, and it came my way — a loss of 9.2 pounds, one inch off both bust and hips and three inches off my waist. Those measurements are no longer politically correct in metricated Canada, but I still think in inches and feet instead of centimeters and meters, no matter how old-fashioned that may be. About the only part of metric that has stuck in my brain is temperature, so I actually think in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit now. (I still get my husband, who learned metrics in medical school, to “translate” kilos into Imperial measurement,)

Those of you who have been asking for an accounting of how my campaign is going after three months can now be satisfied for a while. I’m thinking it’s only going to get better as soon as the holiday season is over. After all, in January, just about everybody we know will be resolving to do what I have been doing — getting in shape over the course of a year.

Most will give it up, once January has passed and the novelty of exercising and dieting has worn thin. Indeed, once the novelty of just about anything has paled, we tend to forget.

Here it is, just days before Christmas, and I can’t help but think of how privileged so many of us are — to be able to choose what and when to eat; to be able to hunker down in our heated houses whenever the weather outside is brutal; to be free of war and strife on our doorsteps.

My selfish campaign, for it is selfish, in that it is all about me and my self-image, needs to take a back seat to the reality all around us. So many of our citizens don’t have the privilege of choice. And in the middle of the wretched excess that marks the holiday season, it’s helpful to remember this.

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote what I called a modern fable, published by the Calgary Herald. Time has passed, but the sad truth is that while we are moved at this time of year to donate to charities, to drop some bills in the Salvation Army kettles, to contribute to the Food Bank and other organizations, the story I wrote in 1984 doesn’t need much changing. Here it is:

Once upon a time . . . there was a man who was so filled with the joy and goodwill of Christmas that he wanted the whole world to celebrate with him.

There would be no child in this city, he vowed, who would wake up Christmas morning and find no toys under the tree.

There would be no adults who would spend Christmas sitting alone in a small room without family and friends. No one would go hungry; no one would be in need.

He would, he announced to his wife and children, to his secretary and colleagues, and to all his neighbours, make sure this would be the best Christmas ever. So he told everyone and all agreed this was a wonderful idea.

The schoolchildren held raffles and penny drives and brought canned food from home to contribute to the Food Bank. They saved part of their holiday spending money and made gaily decorated shoe boxes filled with gifts and goodwill for refugee children on the other side of the world.

The service organizations in town held fund-raising dances and raffles and bingos and charity nights. They went out into the city’s communities and collected bottles and papers; money and food.

The churches preached charity and sharing and all the congregations were moved by the feeling of the season to remember those less fortunate.

It was, indeed, a wonderful Christmas. Thousands of toys were bought and wrapped and given to children whose parents couldn’t afford the luxuries, because the essentials of life were so hard to come by.

Thousands of food hampers were delivered to families across the city so that everyone would be assured of a festive meal on Christmas Day, with lots of leftovers for the rest of the week.

On Christmas morning and all through the following week, love heated the city. Coloured lights twinkled on snow, warming the air and setting a festive mood.

When the children went back to school in January, they felt good about themselves and showed off their new toys and clothes, and the entire class planned a skiing trip. Except, of course, for those classmates whose parents couldn’t afford it.

At their January meeting, each of the service organizations chose one member to receive an award in recognition of the tremendous work the group had done. They scheduled a banquet and all went home from the meeting feeling satisfied with their efforts.

The churches announced in their January bulletins how everyone had banded together to ensure nobody would be forgotten and how, in this way, we had truly remembered to put Christ back into Christmas. All of the parishioners felt blessed.

City council held a special meeting and decided to plan a tribute to recognize the man who had started it all. That evening, he gave a wonderful speech and was named Citizen of the Year. All the media did feature stories on the man who taught an entire city the true meaning of Christmas.

Meanwhile, the children of the poor woke up one morning in January and discovered there wasn’t any milk for breakfast, but it didn’t matter, because there wasn’t any cereal.

The unemployed woke up one morning in January and discovered their unemployment insurance benefits had run out. At the same time the government decided that certain people didn’t deserve welfare and cut them off. There still weren’t any jobs.

The old people in the nursing homes woke up one morning in January and discovered what little money they had left over from their pensions had been eaten up by cost increases. Nobody had been to visit them this month at all, and the children and choirs who came to sing for them at Christmas were too busy to come this Friday night.

All across the city the Christmas lights and decorations were taken down. The only signs left were pine cones and needles and little bits of silver tinsel glinting in the dirty snow and ice in back alleys.

All the crèches were dismantled and the Infant in the manger, Mary and Joseph, the sheep and the shepherds and even the star were carefully wrapped in tissue and put away for another year. Out of sight and out of mind.

And the city got back to normal for another 11 months.

NEXT: A new year and a new you?

Written by Catherine Ford

December 22, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

At Christmastime, my mother would make steamed pudding — the “figgy” pudding of the song We Wish You A Merry Christmas — and one of us kids would be charged with making the hard sauce.

I can’t remember a Christmas without it being the featured dessert. There still hasn’t been a Christmas without one. When I was living in Ontario, Mother would send one to me with her Christmas parcel. If she was spending Christmas in Calgary with my brother and his family, she’d bring a pudding with her and make sure my sister’s family in Edmonton had one, too.

Today, my sister makes the puddings and I make the hard sauce. We do it exactly as Mother did, steaming the pudding in a cloth-covered bowl at the back of the stove for hours. The sauce is only sauce in name, as it doesn’t pour, but consists of butter, icing sugar, and rum, decorated with red glace cherries and a sprig of holly. Doing it just like our late mother did is one of those emotional ties that bind families, even if we aren’t physically together.

It’s carried — flaming — into the darkened dining room. Susan and I, even while singing “so bring us a figgy pudding,” have yet to set anything on fire. This is unlike our late father who, in an argument with one of the neighbours, set out to prove that Christmas pudding soaked with liquor would burn. (This was in the early 1950’s before a generation of French chefs had flambéed their way to fame.) Ron McMurchie insisted boozy pudding didn’t flame. Bob Ford insisted it did.

Only one way to prove the point — Dad poured about a half-bottle of rum over the pudding and lit his Zippo lighter. That he didn’t burn down the neighbour’s house, along with the pudding, the dish, the tablecloth, part of the dining room table and all of his eyebrows and eyelashes when the pudding exploded in blue flame is sheer luck.

That he didn’t injure himself when he tripped into the Christmas tree one year is another miracle.

There were other treats that only appeared at Christmas, including refrigerator cookies that were rolled in icing sugar and contained Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk and peanut butter rolled around a whole glace cherry. I’ve never been able to recreate them and in her later years, Mother couldn’t remember the recipe. I’ve scoured old cookbooks at rummage sales and in thrift stores trying to find the recipe, to no avail. Maybe that’s all for the good, given that I suspect my craving has more to do with memories of Mother than the actual cookie itself. Still, I’ll keep looking. One of these days . . .

This Christmas will be the first without my sister’s and brother-in-law’s son, Eamon. He and his wife, Heather, are spending the holiday in Prince Edward Island with her family. Such are the permutations of blended and extended families.

They will forge their own traditions and memories, but those, too, will be a blend of the old and the new.

Those of you whose holiday traditions are different surely have the same kind of memories of favourite foods and family get-togethers.

The pudding served on Christmas Day wasn’t one of the batch Mother made that year, but in keeping with the theory of letting fruit cakes and their kin ripen for awhile, the pudding we ate was always one from the previous year.

And every time I take a mouthful, I remember Christmases past: grandparents arriving Christmas morning and having to wait for them before opening presents, aunts and uncles coming to visit, going to early Mass on Christmas Day in the pre-dawn bitter cold and seeing the houses around us lit up; hearing our boots crunch in the snow and the steamy heat of the church. And then, the hurry home for stockings and — finally — presents.

Somewhere in a trunk in the basement is the doll my parents gave me the Christmas I was four years old. She wears a pink crocheted dress with green ribbons, panties and bonnet, made by a friend of my mother’s. She’s somewhat the worse for wear these days, but not because of her age. It’s because as a little girl I wanted to take things apart to see how they worked, and after destroying a couple of dolls who couldn’t take my version of inspection, my parents bought me a doll that was intended to come apart — arms, legs and head. I “inspected” her insides so often, she’s stained with a little kid’s dirty hands.

Meanwhile, the challenge for modern holiday cooking is to remove fats and sugars from traditional recipes while keeping the taste and, just as importantly, the mouth feel. Not being a professional taster or critic, I can only describe “mouth feel” as the sensation one gets from food in the mouth. Taste is only part of it. I have trouble eating bananas. Well, truth be told. I can’t eat bananas. I can eat banana bread and banana cake, but not a banana itself. It has something to do with the actual texture of the fruit flesh which puts my gag reflex into overdrive.

The problem with most “diet” foods — especially commercial products — is that they have an aftertaste (like the lingering taste in your throat of aspartame) and at the same time, have no “feel,” that sensation in your mouth after you have eaten something. Wine connoisseurs would call it the “finish” of the drink.

But there are ways to “fix” some of the family holiday favourites without anyone knowing. I’ve made mashed potatoes with chicken broth instead of butter and milk for years, with no one the wiser.

I’ll go to Edmonton next week with a sweet potato casserole and a pan full of chicken enchiladas. The former I’ll eat. The latter, I’ll only have a taste. (Weight Watchers advises its members to beware of BLTs. Not the bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich. But “bites, licks and nibbles.”)

How can I eat and enjoy a fat-laden sweet potato casserole? By following the recipe in the Cooper Clinic cookbook — More of What’s Cooking — written by Veronica C. Coronado with Patty Kirk.

Here’s the recipe for Sweet Potato Casserole:

2 ½ lb. sweet potatoes, peeled
¾ c. egg substitute or 6 egg whites
½ c. skim milk
¾ c. brown sugar, firmly packed (divided use)
¾ tsp. salt
Nonstick vegetable cooking spray
1 tbsp. margarine, softened
¼ c. flour
¼ c. chopped pecans

1. Cut potatoes into 4 pieces each and boil for 30 minutes or until tender.
2. Mash potatoes and combine with egg substitute or egg whites, skim milk, ¼ cup brown sugar and salt; stir well.
3. Pour potato mixture into a 9 x 13-inch baking dish that has been coated with cooking spray.
4. Stir ½ cup brown sugar, margarine, flour and pecans together. Sprinkle over potatoes.
5. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Yield: 12 servings. There are 134 calories per serving or, if you follow Weight Watchers, 4 points.

A Weight Watchers member, Barbara Gardner, first served the following baked potatoes at a Christmas dinner one year. The recipe then appeared in the WW cookbook, Simply The Best. I use it all the time.

Here’s the recipe for Twice-Baked Garlic Potatoes.

4 large baking potatoes, scrubbed
1 garlic bulb
½ cup low-sodium chicken broth
½ cup nonfat sour cream
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 425.
2. Pierce the potatoes several times with a fork; place on a baking sheet. Wrap the garlic in foil and placed alongside the potatoes. Bake until the potatoes are tender and the garlic is browned and softened, 50-60 minutes. Let the potatoes and garlic cook until comfortable to handle, about 15 minutes.
3. Halve the potatoes lengthwise; scoop the pulp into a large bowl, leaving the skins intact. Cut the garlic bulb in half; squeeze out the pulp and add to the potato. Add the broth, sour cream and pepper; stir and mash with a fork to the desired texture. Spoon the stuffing back into the potato skins; sprinkle with the cheese and paprika.
4. Return the potatoes to the baking sheet and bake until heated through and lightly browned, about 15 minutes.
Makes 8 servings, 153 calories each, or 3 points.

You can adjust almost any recipe to make it healthier and lighter. Here are some example, from More of What’s Cooking.
Reduce the oil by half or more.
Use low-fat or reduced-fat cheese and try half as much.
Replace whipping cream with evaporated skim milk.
Make muffins with unsweetened applesauce instead of oil.
Reduce nuts to 2 to 4 tablespoons per recipe.
Replace mayonnaise with half fat-free mayo and half light mayo to get that distinctive taste.
Replace egg with egg whites or egg substitutes, using 2 egg whites or ¼ cup egg substitute for1 egg.

Facing the holidays isn’t all about denial and stress, it’s all about having a plan and, most importantly, having fun.

Those of you who are following along this campaign with me probably have some favourite recipes and hints of your own. I’d love to read them. And you can share them by leaving a comment.

NEXT: Merry Christmas and how did we all do with the At Home Challenge?

Written by Catherine Ford

December 16, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment

On Friday, we will take out from the kitchen hutch the brass menorah we bought in a hardware store in New York and lugged back to Calgary. We will put it in our front window and light the first Hanukah candle.

This Saturday, Himself will take out the ancient meat grinder, assemble chicken livers, chopped onions and the shmaltz he makes from chicken fat he saves all year. He will make a bowl of the world’s best chopped liver and yes, I will have some.

On the Sunday during the eight days of the Festival of Lights, we host a dinner party for my non-Jewish family. The menu is not, shall we say, in any way “traditional.” We don’t make latkes, but do honour Ted’s cultural heritage and the celebration with at least one dish made with oil.

(According to The Jewish Book of Why — which is in fact, two books written by Alfred J. Kolatch, published in 1981 — Hanukah celebrates the victory of Judah the Maccabea and his four brothers over the Syrian Greeks in 165 BCE. The eight-day festival marks the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem which had been converted into a pagan shrine. The jugs of oil, prepared for lighting the temple menorah, had been desecrated writes Kolatch.

“After much searching, only one small undefiled jug still bearing the unbroken seal of the High Priest could be found. The cruse contained only enough oil to burn in the menorah for one day. Nevertheless, the High Priest kindled the menorah and a miracle happened: the menorah flame continued to burn for eight days. To commemorate the event, it was decided that thenceforth the holiday would be observed annually by kindling lights for eight days and Hanukah became known as the Feast (or Festival) of Lights.”)

Not having been raised Jewish, many of the customs and rituals are strange to me. Rather than answer all of my curious questions himself, Ted bought me The Jewish Book of Why early in our relationship. The books don’t attempt to recite rules and regulations, rather they answer all the “why” questions that come to mind. I still refer to the two books regularly.

We will serve Ted’s chopped liver as an appetizer, followed by chicken soup with matzo balls; gefilte fish, with chrain (homemade horseradish and beet sauce); brisket with Sicilian potato croquettes (the requisite dish fried in oil) and glazed carrot coins For desert, there’ll be a Firecracker Apple Cake, made from a Bon Apettit recipe.

“What’s gefilte fish?” asked a niece one year, biting into one of the round cakes of ground whitefish.

Ted thought for a moment, and replied: “Fish balls.”

Her response? “I didn’t know fish had balls.”

Not a single one of these dishes could be classified as “diet” food. To that, I reply “good.” As someone who only once made “vegetarian” chopped liver, which was low in calories and distinctly low in taste, mouth feel and attractiveness, as it came out gray-coloured, it would be nothing short of insulting to try to make this dinner diet-friendly. So what will I do? Eat about half of what I would have eaten before I started on this campaign. I won’t feel deprived and I won’t feel hungry.

When we go to my sister’s for Christmas, I’ll adopt the same strategies for the traditional turkey dinner. I’m bringing the sweet potato casserole which I make more thigh friendly by using a recipe from the More of What’s Cooking, published for the Cooper Clinic in Arkansas, a multi-disciplinary medical institute.

How to get through the Christmas party season requires the same kind of strategy, one that recognizes the fact that eating dinner before going out not only makes it easier to ignore the finger foods and nuts and other temptations, but reduces the effect of booze on anyone’s system.

Getting through the season’s (gr)eatings without giving up in despair and gaining weight isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible, either. (Unfortunately, I belong to that special group of people who love Christmas cake with its almond paste topping).

Let me share the best advice of all, from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, which is as concerned with obesity as a factor contributing to heart disease as it is with educating all of us. My own history of heart disease has led me to have the utmost respect and admiration for this foundation and to serve on one of its advisory boards.

The foundation publishes all sorts of nutrition and sound health advice on its Website (

Cara Rosenbloom , a registered dietitian, sets out five helpful tips for getting through the season. She writes: “it’s common to gain a pound or two during this time of year. While this seems like a small amount of weight it’s usually not lost over the following year, despite your best New Year’s resolution.”

Rosenbloom’s five points: pace yourself, think about what you’re eating, control your portions, offer to bring a dish (see my comments about the sweet potato casserole) and, finally, just say no.

Rosenbloom writes: “It’s okay to indulge in a festive meal. What hinders heart health is not one meal, but celebrating the holidays all month long and continuously enjoying rich foods and desserts. If you know your calendar is filled with parties be sure to make healthier choices most often and save the treats for the most special occasions.

“Whether you are at a buffet brunch or a potluck dinner or a family sit-down, be aware of the amount of food you eat. It sounds simple, but between flowing alcohol and interesting conversation it’s easy to mindlessly munch . . .”

“Stay aware. Enjoy your entrée on a salad plate instead of a dinner plate so you’ll have less room. . . Then, watch where you sit or stand while engaged in conversation. If it’s beside a platter of food, chances are you’ll continuously eat. “

Portion control is my personal preferred method, that way you don’t have to miss out on your favourite holiday treats. Instead, try a small spoonful of everything, so you don’t feel deprived. “Having a small taste of your favourites is often enough to satisfy a craving. Depriving yourself rarely words – and often leads to overindulging later on. Having just a small portion is a sensible way to still enjoy the best seasonal sweets and riches without overindulging.”

When you offer to bring a dish you’re in charge. (My theory is that if you make it, you control it.) Rosenbloom writes: “Every holiday table should have some healthier options.” Even better, offer to mash the potatoes and use chicken broth instead of butter and cream. Remember not to brag about any of this and remember nobody – nobody at all — needs to know you are doing anything different from anyone else. Why does this matter? Because if you talk, you will be held to public account. That kind of pressure doesn’t do anyone any good.

As for saying no, be judicious about it. “You shouldn’t be obligated to eat everything that’s offered to you. Don’t feel guilty about it . . . and don’t allow yourself to be bullied into making unhealthy choices. Ultimately, what you put in your mouth is your choice.”

“Finally,” writes Rosenbloom, “a great tip for controlling seasonal weight gain is to continue to be physically active throughout the holidays.”

While Rosenbloom occasionally gets a tad pedantic, as so many of her colleagues in the nutrition business do, all of her advice is well-meaning and made with the best of intentions.

But the best advice of all? You are responsible for your own decisions. You are in control.

NEXT: How to make your favourites less caloric.

Written by Catherine Ford

December 9, 2009 at 11:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 4 comments

Someone once said that quitting smoking was harder than quitting heroin. Clearly he (and it had to be a he) had never been on a diet.

Cigarettes are something one can give up completely and banish forever from your life, your house and your mind. Try that with food.

But surely the methods used to quit smoking are viable in any war against addiction.

I have no idea how many thousands of dollars the Calgary Herald spent on courses called “leadership and mastery” or “visioning.” All managers went through the process as did most of the staff over a couple of years. Everyone seemed to think it was a frivolous way to spend money. Everyone was wrong.

I doubt I could have quit smoking without the tools such courses gave me. That wasn’t the point, of course, of such management training. But it worked for me, spectacularly. How? One of the exercises was to envision yourself in the future — your ideal dream or wish. My vision was of me walking confidently across a stage in a strapless, black velvet evening gown. This, of course, had nothing to do with work. Why an evening gown? Why black velvet? When I thought about it, the secret wasn’t what I was wearing or what I was doing, but what the vision represented: a confident woman, proud of her body, striding across a public forum.

When I was thinking of quitting, I realized that the vision I had of myself did not include a single Player’s Filter cigarette. Why did this matter? Because if you knew me then, you’d know that a lit cigarette was my constant companion. For me to think of myself without a cigarette made me realize maybe it was time to quit.

So I employed another technique taught to me through all this learning and mastery stuff — I gave myself permission to fail. I literally had a conversation with my bathroom mirror one night, saying if it got too difficult, if I couldn’t hack it, then I could get in my car (in my nightgown if needs be) and drive to the nearest store and buy cigarettes. Strangely enough, that took all the pressure off.

So on April 20, 1991, on my oldest niece’s 13 birthday (she’s always considered it her birthday present) I quit cold turkey. The date had little to do with it being a “special” day. Nothing to do with the anniversary of the day Billie Holliday recorded “Strange Fruit” or the birthday of Edmonton bush pilot and First World War hero “Wop” May (real name Wilfrid) and some German from the next world war, Adolph Hitler. Nothing to do with the day Jacques Cartier set out in 1534 to discover Labrador and Canada. None of that. The day was chosen because I had finally smoked the last cigarette from my considerable hoard of Player’s Filter. When one smoked as much as I did, one kept cigarettes everywhere — at home, at the office, in the car, cartons in the freezer — I was like a junkie stashing away her fix.

But at 3 p.m. that afternoon, I quit smoking. It wasn’t pretty, but I didn’t realize I was going through withdrawal until about 10 days had passed and I thought the cold sweats and the incipient nausea was a sign of the flu. When I finally went to my doctor she just laughed and said had I told her before, she could have given me something to take, but as I had already been through the worst, I just needed to tough it out.

Did I want a cigarette? Silly question. Of course I did. Of course I still do even today, although I can’t imagine ever having one. To a lesser extent now, I still have the occasional dream in which I am smoking and I wake up in a cold sweat, not quite sure if the dream was real or not.

How did visioning and mastery help? Simple. Knowing my will to resist temptation wasn’t the best, I didn’t try to deny myself anything. Every time the urge hit — it only seemed to hit every second of every hour of every day — I told myself that of course I wanted a cigarette. But I was a non-smoker. I WAS a non-smoker. I just kept repeating the mantra: I am a non-smoker. Do I want a cigarette now, after 18 years? Of course. But I AM a non smoker. Now, if only I could apply that kind of thinking to my diet, it still wouldn’t be easy but it would at least be a plan.

And that’s where the Weight Watchers slogan of “don’t give up what you want most for what you want now” helps. It doesn’t help all the time, of course, or I wouldn’t be on this very public mission to change.

But one strategy over all other helps the most — I’ve stopped beating myself up if I binge on cookies or anything else. I’ve stopped telling myself I’m a failure if I decide to have dessert, or to have another drink. And best of all — this journey on which I have invited all of you readers to share is nonetheless an intensely personal one. I am the judge of whether it is successful; I am the arbiter of what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

That is an immensely freeing experience and attitude and I urge any of you who are bombarded with other people’s opinions about how you look and what you eat to reject them, first, and to plot your own path to reach “what you want most,” second.

As I set out in Chapter 1, what I want most is to lose the last few pounds which, over the course of the past two years, I have lost and gained back those pesky dozen pounds a number of times. More importantly, I want to be more fit as I head into my “senior” years. I want to run to the grave, not hobble.

I do not want, as Dylan Thomas put it so well, to “go gentle.”

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Food is not just food, it’s not “the enemy,” it is part of a bigger picture, part of who we are as women and how we were raised. The dinner table is not the battleground, but part of our identity.

Calgary artist and teacher Verna Reid completed a doctoral thesis in 2003 at the age of 75 and turned that thesis into her 2008 book, Women Between, a study of four female Canadian artists, at age 80. If anyone knows about the changing patterns of women’s lives, she does. She’s lived those patterns.

So when Reid writes about women and their bodies and empowerment, I’m a believer. She says: “While enjoying many aspects of their femininity, most women in our society have often felt ill at ease with their bodies and bodily desires. Women’s connection to their physical selves has historically been a site of conflict, bound as they are by biological rhythms, trained often to deny their sexual nature while at the same time being valued for the degree of their feminine attractiveness.”

Like her, I, too, was liberated and jubilant (her words) at the first sight of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, now on permanent exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Verna (her son, John, is a friend) first saw the installation in 1982 at its opening in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, as did I. She writes: “I still remember the excitement of walking into this dramatically lit room; there stood a monumental, triangular table set with thirty-six plates, thirteen on each side. The shapes on the plates were three-dimensional, flowerlike forms suggesting female genitalia, a choice I found both startling and liberating.” I couldn’t agree more.

The dinner table is not just a piece of furniture. It is part and parcel of ourselves, our femaleness and our past. Reid writes: “When I was a little girl, I asked my grandmother what heaven was like. She replied that, for her, it was a big dinner table with all her family and friends, including those ‘loved and lost a while,’ seated round. It is an image grounded in traditional female experience.”

Dealing with the meals on that table should be a pleasure in our lives, not a fear. But dealing with that food at this time of year, when so much of our celebrations, from Thanksgiving through Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanza and New Year’s, are centred around particular foods and our enjoyment of them, is often a challenge.

I’m up to it. Are you?

NEXT: Chopped liver, Christmas cake and the season’s eating

Written by Catherine Ford

December 3, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized