Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bahrija Oasis: The Organic Label and The "Know-Your-Farmer" Local Movement Discussion

If you were to make the decision to go organic or support your local farmer, which would you choose? In many ways, while the organic movement has helped to create that conversation of how important it is to know where your food comes from and how it was grown/processed/made, the ‘label’ itself is worth noting.

Permaculture is a holistic design philosophy and the art and science of creating community eco-systems in which plants, animals, human beings, and all forms of ecological diversity interact to produce a prolific, ecologically-sound, and regenerative system that can support itself and life indefinitely.”

On Tuesday I went to Bahrija Oasis, a permaculture center that has been practicing what it preaches for over a decade. My NGO brought along with us partners for a climate change and agriculture project currently in the works to better understand what an eco-friendly, local permaculture movement looked like in Malta. We spent half the day there learning about the following:

  • Permaculture and permaculture principles
  • Ecological gardening
  • Eco-restoration & biodiversity
  • Rainwater management
  • Forest gardening
  • Composting & compost toilets
  • Holistic approaches to land use
  • Ethical development

It was most certainly an inspiration, especially since my talk of gardens and homesteading causes CK to say, “I’m going to be living on a farm, aren’t I?” Everything that I have been reading about and aspiring to create a career around was what Bahrija Oasis embodied. The people responsible for the farms success combined traditional Maltese farming methods with the principles mentioned. I remember being in awe at how sustainable their practices were. They utilized old materials such as bathtubs, sinks, barrels, plastic bins, and tires. They used solar panels and a windmill for part of their energy use, and they even had a pond for aquaponics!

As we were walking, I asked our guide if he was organically certified, and remembered the look on his face was a struggle of being diplomatic yet critical of the label.

In truth, the organic label as I’ve come to see it in the United States is something that has so many loopholes you might as well be playing billiards; and it seems that parts of Europe is similar. While the definition of organic, in my opinion, should universally mean “(of food or farming methods) produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals”, it has come to mean something else. It has come to mean money for big business. Our guide mentioned that being certified organic seemed to only benefit big farms and industries, and even then the companies could get the certification with only a fraction of their product being organic.

Take Coca Cola for example. It has an organic label. So does Kellogg’s. And they say so in very small print of its origination under the organic logo. Suddenly, organic hasn’t come to mean the definition written above, but something that has become money-oriented and big business-friendly. The label has lost its meaning in the name of profit.


The USDA has changed the playing field for organic certification. Farmers/Businesses who strive for the organic elite title can still use pesticides, fertilizers, and fairly nasty chemicals on their crop. Products can be called organic even when only a portion of the ingredients going to making the product is actually organic. And what’s worse is how much of a strain it is on local farmers. More often than not the signs at farmers markets will say: “Not certified organic, BUT free of pesticides and chemicals, pasture-raised, etc.” In other words, “We’re organic, but the certification process is bogus and we want to continue doing what we believe in.”

But that’s what the local movement is all about: knowing your farmer, knowing your food, and knowing the process. After reading No Impact Man, I learned that a good way to go about this movement was to create a relationship with the local movement, treating it like a blind date. Arrange a visit to the farms and take a tour. Learn their process and ask them about their practices. It’s a form of empowerment, making the decision to choose farmers based on what you believe in.

Bahrija Oasis may not be organically certified, but their methods are what I call organic. They apply the permaculture cycle with care, starting with the soil and ending with the soil. It is symbiotic, taking care of the earth and in turn being able to provide nourishment for yourself and others. While the farm itself is vegetarian, the use of animals is prominent: chickens and other fowl for eggs and bug control; goats for milk, weed management, and fertilizer; worms for nutrient-concentrated soil; and a dog for being a great companion and protector. Compost is a big deal here, as well as the usage of nettle tea as a fertilizer and natural pesticide.

So when our guide asked a fairly important question to us, “Which is more important, the organic label or supporting local movements?”, I knew where I stood. And the food (gluten free AND vegetarian) served at lunch was absolutely divine (much of it coming from the gardens). It was the first time I ever had wild thyme (also from the farm) tea, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Combining Passions and Kissing Self-Censorship Goodbye

In two weeks I will be celebrating Meals with Morri’s 3rd Anniversary. Three years of recipes, change, and growth under the “delicious, nutritious, and gluten free” banner.

But that’s the thing: it isn’t simply about being a gluten free blogger anymore.

With the start of grad school and deciding to live in Malta to gain experience in the sustainable development field, I’ve noticed, with disdain I might add, how little blogging I’ve actually been doing since, well, life happened. And it’s not that I don’t cook. I do. And it’s not that I don’t have anything to say. I do, and do so quite loudly. But so much change as left me overwhelmed and depressed at times, and the last thing I want to do is resent my passions by feeling obligated.

As the three-year mark looms closer, I realized I’d been censoring myself on this site. Why? Because gods forbid I make someone uncomfortable with what I write. Gods forbid someone among the thousands of readers who read and test my recipes get so upset that they stop reading Meals with Morri forever. All my life, everyone’s opinions of me mattered and I would harshly internalize when I did or said something ‘wrong’.

I promise you, this rant has a point.

I’ve kept my activism and Meals with Morri aspect separate, when in reality it was through blogging during my studies in conflict resolution that kick-started my passions and what I wanted to do with my career. Through blogging, I learned about sustainable development, climate change, responsible agricultural practices, holistic health, public policy, food politics, yoga, rock climbing, positive body image, and more. Suddenly, the idea of bringing food into my conflict resolution practice didn’t seem so ridiculous.

Which brings me back to my self-censorship. At one point early on in my blogging career, I actually went back and softened up certain words or phrases that seemed ‘critical’ (I stopped using the word ‘hate’ at some point). I wasn’t spouting hatred and “I’m right, you’re wrong” nonsense; I was simply offering my critical opinion of where I stood.

So with the three-year mark coming up, I began to ask what I had to show for it. I have almost reached 100,000 pageviews and seen all over the world with 231 blog posts, and am planning new pages that emphasize my passions. I have a series of ideas in how to broaden my horizons (within and outside the MWM boundaries), which includes: foodie videos, getting published on other sites, reflections on activism, and interviews with compassionate individuals in various fields.

Qarabaghli mimli fil-forn (Maltese translation: Stuffed Courgettes; inspired recipe here
4 Large marrows (roughly 1 Kg or 2 lbs.)
1 Large red onion
1 Garlic clove
2 Dried Bay leaves
2 Large tomatoes
2 tbsp. Tomato paste
300 g Ricotta*
2 Large eggs**
4 tbsp. Grated Parmesan cheese or Kefalotyri***
Olive oil
Fine grain white corn polenta
Sea salt
Cracked pepper

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F, and lightly coat the baking dish with olive oil.
Cut the marrows lengthwise in half and scoop out the insides with a teaspoon.****
On either side of the marrow, coat with the olive oil that was used in lining the dish pan.
Fry the onion, garlic, bay leaves, and tomatoes in some olive oil until soft, followed by the tomato paste to cook for a further few minutes. (Be sure to remove the bay leaves!)
Add in the ricotta and mix thoroughly, allowing it to cool slightly before adding the eggs.
Season to taste preference (although the cheese was salty enough for me).
Fill the marrow halves with the cheese-veggie mixture and then lightly sprinkle with the polenta (roughly 1/4 tsp. per marrow) followed by the grated cheese.
Bake for about 45 minutes until the marrows have softened and the mixture has firmed and slightly browned on top.
Serve hot (although delicious cold) on top of potatoes, rice, beans, or whatever you’re craving.

Makes 8 stuffed marrows. Servings vary depend on meal type.

Vegan Options include: *300 g drained and mashed (although not smooth) cooked black beans; ** 2 Flax eggs; *** 4 tbsp. Nutritional yeast

**** The recipe called for using the pulp, but I found that I really didn’t have the space for it in the recipe. Since this recipe is apparently great with baked MDP’s, I suggest finely chopping the pulp and sauteing it with potatoes along with onion and garlic. Also, to keep the halves upright, I sliced a small sliver from the outside.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: My Journey

A few years ago my cousin introduced me to Post Secret, a movement created by a very compassionate individual by the name of Frank Warren who created an outlet for people to anonymously mail secrets to him. The secrets can be funny, ridiculous, serious, sad, and anything in between. Every Sunday, he posts new secrets that millions of people read. Every Sunday, I am one of those millions of people that do. It’s a way, I think, for people to feel connected with others around the world. Sharing these secrets is a way to let go as well as bringing people together. It’s a relief know that there are others who are going through similar things or thinking the same thoughts.

Last Sunday’s secrets really hit home for me. They revolved around eating disorders. Here are a few examples:

(Probably the one that was the most personal and relevant for me.)

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week brings into light a very personal matter for a lot of people. It doesn’t just affect a certain weight, gender, age, or nationality. It affects a wide ranged of people for different reasons. It mostly is about a sense of control or the desire of being this ideal image or weight, but those aren't the only reasons.

I remember becoming extremely offended when this fight of what ‘real women’ look like started. Suddenly, naturally slender women were subjected to scorn in the media. I have friends of various height and weight combinations, and they are all exceptionally beautiful people. They have shown me that there is no one-size-fits-all aspect of beauty.

One of the things CK told me (and that I love him for) is that there is no such thing as the fairytale relationship. And so, this past weekend, he asked me a very hard question: “So then, why do you demand for the fairytale body?” This applied not only to my appearance, but also my health. It was one of those questions that not only broke down everything I tried to ignore, but once I let it out I couldn’t stop.

I don't refer to having had disordered eating as an eating disorder  because I believe the term 'eating disorder' places blame on the person suffering. Disordered eating is also more inclusive and, in my opinion, something you can rise from and have the power to change. Disordered eating has traveled with me like a codependent ally, needing me to need to control what I ate, when I ate, and how much. When I went to college, I lost a lot of weight. In total, my weight loss journey resulted in over 40 pounds. Most of it was due to changing my eating habits and preferring healthier options and exercising more. But when I became ‘thin’, I was deathly afraid of gaining it back. I’ve had panic attacks in the past because it was so terrifying to me to go back to that time when my body was a prison to the wonderful person underneath.

*Photos are from 1990 - 2012.

The evolution of my disordered eating habits became more about earning and deserving food than not eating. To be fair, I didn’t decide one day to be anorexic my sophomore year in high school. I just felt I didn’t have time to eat in the mornings and simply wasn’t hungry for lunch (and believe me, the food options in the cafeteria were not appetizing). So I would go almost twenty hours without eating, snack when I got home and then eat dinner. I drank hot tea in the mornings with lemon and sugar, but that was it. By the end of the first quarter, I was under 140 pounds, a first since I started puberty.

And then I got sick and began vomiting blood. The trip to the ER showed stomach ulcers from drinking tea (which is extremely acidic) on an empty stomach, and put a slight hole in my esophagus. I called this experience the time I was “accidentally anorexic”.

By college, I went gluten free (soy free and cane sugar free came about a year or two after). I started eating healthier and exercising and was rather happy with where I was at body image-wise. I changed my appearance often, even cutting my hair in a pixie cut. My exercising, however, became something I had to do and a way to cut calories. I would do the math and think: “Okay… I’ve burned a certain number of calories, enough to have burned off breakfast, and maybe that smoothie I want to have later.” (This is also known as exercise bulimia and a very common form of disordered eating.) I looked at my body more critically, wondering why I wasn’t getting the body I wanted. At one point I tried to survive on 1200 calories a day. I guesstimated my intake, so I’m sure I ate more than that. But it still stands that, while I was active and walking to class, I wasn’t eating enough. I think I even blacked out while driving at one point on my way back to campus housing for lunch.

When I started this blog, the first post began with me being hungry really early in the morning. The echoes of healing are apparent in many posts and recipes I’ve published in the last three years. Seeing a holistic nutritionist (Cheryl Harris of Harris Whole Health and Gluten Free Goodness) probably saved my life. She encouraged me to take small steps, read Johnston’s (2000) Eating in the Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship with Food Through Myths, Metaphors, and Storytelling, and I slowly changed how I perceived eating and food. My self worth and image built itself up and, in increments, stopped focusing on calories and focused more on what my body needed and when.

Being diagnosed with hypothyroidism in 2011 also changed by body image and eating habits, and it really helped in knowing my struggles with weight weren’t entirely my fault. Yes, I could have eaten healthier and exercised more, but growing up with an underactive thyroid literally makes you the underdog. Not only does your metabolism suffer, everything does. How could I be healthy when I was sick all the time? How could I get better if it was my body that wasn’t working?

Since receiving treatment, I’ve noticed my body doesn’t get sick as often or as easily. And the slow change of feeling like I have to exercise to wanting to exercise as well as removing ‘good’ and ‘bad’  as labels for food (also called orthorexia, or a fixation of only eating what the person believes is healthy or ‘good’ food) really helped transform my mindset toward loving my body. I still have old paradigms rear their ugly heads when I’m stressed or feeling vulnerable, but I know where I am right now is a pretty awesome place to be.

The last thing that really changed everything for me was doing the Insanity Challenge. I went from 125 lbs to 142 lbs, eating up to 2500 calories to maintain efficiency. I started learning how to take cues from my body, and was absolutely fascinated how I became more solid, but didn’t get bigger. In horror, I realized just how much I denied my poor body nutrients in the name of fairytale beauty. I knew in theory that not eating enough will actually keep you from losing weight because your body is trying to keep you alive. But after completing the Insanity Workout, it finally resonated.

Even today, while I have moments (and they are fleeting, I’m happy to say) where I think I’m not pretty enough, smart enough, thin enough, whatever enough, I have a fantastic support system and I am dulling the words of that harsh Inner Critic we are all capable of having. I cook and eat because food nourishes my body and my soul. I exercise to see how my strength has improved physically and mentally. I have learned to treat myself with compassion and empathy, and am learning what situations open the door for negative thoughts (usually sleep deprivation, sickness, or getting stuck inside my own head for too long).

The one thing I really hope the world comes to realize is that people who suffer disordered eating do not do it for attention, and telling them about how there are people without food in other parts of the world do not help. And while it helps to receive reassurance (because I admit to needing reassurance from time to time), the only thing that will change their outlook on themselves and the need of control is their desire to change it. It may mean getting professional help (as I had), changing the environment that encourages this disorder, and taking as well as celebrating the little steps. And while I believe it is most certainly acceptable to change yourself to feel better health-wise, I have learned that seeking perfection is impossible, mostly because there is no such thing as the perfect person. It's okay to be any weight that makes you feel comfortable, so as long as you don't risk your health or happiness to get there. It's also okay to have a 'type', but just remember that the other types out there are equally awesome.

It also means looking at body shaming as it is: a form of violence and bullying. We need to stop focusing on beauty as a surface phenomenon and looking to create the word to mean something that is all-inclusive. Let's stop comparing ourselves to one another and looking for acceptance based on what the scale says or what the media tells us. We need to stop diminishing someone's worth based on their appearance, and STOP STOP STOP saying someone isn't beautiful in order to make someone else feel that they are. It is NOT okay. And the first step to achieving this is inward.

I am so grateful to my family, friends, and partner for changing my life. And thank you all who were so brave as to sharing their stories, with me personally, and on Post Secret. And for those who are still suffering, are recovering, and everywhere in between, I want to say this to you:
  • You are beautiful in the present. At this very moment, you are the perfect you and you are on the path you need to take.
  • You are the ideal you.
  • You matter.
  • You are loved, honored, and appreciated for being yourself.
  • No one’s opinions of what you should look like or be like is important. The only thing that matters is how you feel.
  • It does get better. I promise you.
I made this recipe as a way to honor those struggles, and to reach out to others. Following this recipe are some stories about disordered eating and body image. I cannot express to you how much I appreciated the bravery of these individuals to share their story. It will be updated throughout the week, but feel free to leave a comment also.

Mashed Potato Biscuit Hearts

420 g mashed potatoes*
75 g Garbanzo bean flour
100 g ground almonds (i.e., blanched almond flour)
65 g Brown rice flour
60 g Flaxseed meal
120 ml Whole milk
1 Large egg
1 tsp. Sea salt
3/4 tsp. Baking soda
3/4 tsp. Cream of Tartar

Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C.
Mix together the wet ingredients (potatoes, milk, and egg) in a large bowl and add the dry (the dough will be a bit tacky).
Let the dough sit for five minutes.
On a floured surface, take a handful of dough** and flatten it to about an inch thick.
Using a heart-shaped cookie cutter (or any for that matter), press through the dough and place the cutouts onto a greased baking sheet (or parchment paper).
Continue to do so until all the dough has been formed, and bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Remove from the oven and let them cool for about 10 minutes before eating.
Can be served hot or cold.

Makes 11 or more biscuits, depending on cutout size.

* I used the potato ricer to make the mashed potatoes and didn't add anything to them.
** I found it easier to take a handful of dough at a time than to just roll it out and cut.

Other's Stories (Coming Soon)

Story 1: The Legacy
The Influence of family: My first negative body image messages came from my own mother when I entered puberty. She made me self conscious about my weight gain. (Replaying the messages from her own mother about her struggles with weight gain. To lose weight that she gained during her own puberty, she ate only mayonnaise sandwiches for an entire summer. She did some severe dieting after each of her children to lose the baby weight, which affected her mood and energy levels.) I also remember my father making comments that 125 lbs was an ideal weight (for my mom) so that was a weight goal I strived to attain. No matter that I was actually 3 inches taller and actually looked ghastly at 125 lbs. As a result, I went through puberty and early adolescence (in the 1970’s)  “knowing” that I was “fat” and unattractive. As a result, I became anorexic in my mid-teens, something that was acerbated by a bout of mononucleosis.

The influence of media and product advertisements: Dress size, body weight, body image, attractiveness and perceived sexual desirability have always been interconnected. No matter that I actually felt my best when I weighed a certain amount. In order to fit into certain styles of clothing, I had to be a certain size. In order to accentuate my eyes and my cheekbones I needed to have a certain contour to my face (achieved only by dieting). The mirror: It lies. What I see is not what others see. As a result I have to use a tape measure; it doesn’t lie.

My regrets: I hate how I look. I have always hated how I look. Once in a while, when some time has passed and I see a picture of myself, I think, “Wow! I look really great in that picture.” But, if I think back to when the picture was taken and how I felt about my looks, I would say that I felt ugly or at least not attractive.

Legacy: I have watched helplessly as my own daughter has struggled with this amorphous monster, wondering what I could have done that I didn’t do; how I could have better protected her from the jaws of this gaping beast. I tried to offer unconditional love and support as she has struggled. I tried to keep my own self criticism and self esteem issues to myself. I tried to make every effort to not taint her with the family legacy of toxic messaging. I have tried to be her best cheer leader. But, as evidenced by her very public struggles with disordered eating, love isn’t enough. This dis-ease is insidious. It’s in our wiring, it’s in our cells…