Shirley and blogger, January 2017, Velas Vallarta, our home resort
If this were simply a set of homemade soup recipes, I would have titled it something like “my favorite soup recipes.” No, this is a lifestyle blog, a blog about choices and about fitness, more specifically fitness at 80, not 30 or 40, although that too.
I read today on MSN that our United States is the most obese nation on earth. Almost forty percent of us are not just overweight but obese, as measured by body mass index (BMI). Mexico is a distant second. The least obese country is Japan. The Scandinavian countries also do well on this measure.
I met my late life partner on New Year’s Eve day, the last day of 2007, at a singles golf tournament at Gold Mountain near Apache Junction, Arizona. At 175 pounds on a five foot four frame she was slightly on the wrong side of the obesity borderline. It was her winning personality, her zest for life, and her big heart that attracted me. But let’s be honest. I wanted to see her a few pounds lighter, both for her self-image and for health. A year earlier, she had been diagnosed with diabetes. So she was motivated to shed some pounds as well.
It was not an easy struggle. In the eight years through December 2015 she lost ten to twelve pounds, depending on whether or not we’d dined at a favorite Tucson restaurant or been captive at one of the many potlucks that abound in our senior living community. By this time, Shirley (lets call her by her real name) at 165 pounds or so was within hailing distance of her goal, which was to weigh less than me. Full disclosure: My BMI is 21 and I have weighed a pound or two either side of 158 for many years.
Christmas 2015, my brother the nutrition nut arrives from Phoenix carrying several health oriented tomes, our Christmas gifts. His latest enthusiasm is a book entitled Wheat Belly. Over New Year’s Shirley and I read it together and decide to give its recommended draconian diet a try, well, within reason. It espouses removing all vestiges of wheat from your diet to a ridiculous extreme. We pledged ourselves a reduction to a manageable extreme. In less than two months, Shirley lost seven or so pounds, and for a few days met her goal of weighing less than me. (Note: We weigh ourselves in our birthday suits first thing every morning on one of those electronic scales for accuracy.) On this diet I also lost a pound, even eating like a horse, so it was neck and neck–no groans please. At any rate, she had jump-started a meaningful weight loss program. But by that time, we were thoroughly tired of the no wheat bit. She loves Eggo’s, for example, her favorite breakfast. I’m an egg and toast guy, sometimes like to make a roux and add some sausage to top the toast. However, everything in moderation, Aristotle’s golden mean.
She continued to hover around 160, which was the status of things when we arrived at our summer retreat in Show Low Arizona, at 6300 feet some twenty degrees on average cooler than Tucson. And that’s when I happened on soups in an article that touted its weight reduction potential. We decided to put ourselves on a soup diet, not exclusively, but soup for dinner, just soup and possibly a small salad, two or three times a week. No side dishes, and absolutely no desserts on those nights. Then eat normally but sensibly the other nights.
According to my brother many commercial soups are salt bombs filled with bad stuff, a conspiracy of the processed food industry to kill us off. I take him with a grain of salt–do I hear more groans? Notwithstanding, I determined that my soups would be homemade from basic quality ingredients. Together we read over the soup sections of our accumulated cookbooks. In addition, with previous culinary endeavors I had discovered Google. Got recipes for pot roasts, turkey dressing, chicken alfredo, various casseroles, stuff like that. I found Google to be an absolute gold mine for soup recipes. Enter, say, black bean soup, my first foray, and a row of photos appears, showing enticing bowls of various recipe offerings with links to websites like food.com, taste of home, or allrecipes. I’d print out the recipe, give the page the three hole punch, and add it to my loose leaf binder that contained my earlier productions.
I like to think of myself as a creative cook. So I make a few adjustments, maybe cut down on the salt and added some spices. Often add a little heat. I have a favorite, New Mexico chili powder, but for soups I use the mild version and at most a teaspoon, unless I’m doing a Southwestern or Tex-Mex species.
That first, a “contest winning” black bean soup, turned out to be absolutely wonderful. A revelation of what starting from scratch could yield, starting with the overnight soak of a package of black beans. I followed it pretty much as written, although cut way down on the cumin, a spice I don’t care for, and cooked it in the slow cooker with a ham hock thrown in. Being our only entre, we ate more than a normal serving, more like two ample bowls.
At the next morning weigh in, she’d dropped a full pound. Over the course of the summer, I made homemade soups, virtually all from Google-generated recipes, about two times a week. I did several in the bean and pea family, lima beans, split pea, lentil, and also made forays into the vegetable garden, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, carrot, or cabbage as the main focus, and always the obligatory onion, maybe celery. Later on, got even more adventurous. Did a French Onion and a Salmon Bisque.
I became something of a soup whisperer. Learned to take a pretty good recipe and make it exceptional, if I do say so. I don’t trust rapid weight loss, a pound a week, no more, but consistent. By the middle of September Shirley was well below 150, and was closing in on the low 140’s.
Late last fall, she stabilized at a pound or two above 140. She hints about wanting to get to 135, but I personally think she’s good where she is, given her age, eighty next birthday. The BMI says she’s no longer obese or even overweight, but falls at the high end of the normal range.
Maybe it’s the diabetes, but she “goes off” (our term for getting a severe case of munchies) about every three hours, When we go through the check-out counter at Fry’s or Safeway, a mounds bar or two will magically find its way on the moving belt. The lower weight has reduced her calorie needs, making it harder for her to maintain, let alone reduce further. To compensate, she focuses on portion control, stops when full, and hands the remaining tidbits over to me, her garbage can, as my dilemma is losing, not gaining. Don’t get me wrong, I really like to eat, especially my own creations, but unlike Shirley, I simply don’t get hungry, not even after eight, ten hours. As a result, I don’t snack between meals and often skip lunch because I get involved in stuff like my fiction writing, or this blog. I also hit the fitness center regularly.
So what’s the current strategy? When that dinner out or that potluck adds a pound or two, one of us will raise the war cry, “Time to make some soup,” and we share a laugh. It’s working so far. Within the week, soup brought her back to her set weight (140) after our annual four weeks in Puerto Vallarta added that dreaded three pounds.
Now for my final comment on why I make soups. I have simply come to relish the process of soup making. I start with a base recipe from Google, or now that my loose leaf collection of recipes is overflowing, from there. Then comes the cogitating of additions and subtractions from a target recipe, followed by lots of tedious peeling and slicing of stuff like garlic and onions and carrots and selecting spices and carefully chopping or crushing the fresh ones, the ones we grow in our spice trays, and finally the washing up of dirty pans and pots.
It’s become almost an art form. How can I make this one special? It’s been largely self taught, trial and error, gaining a sense of what and how much of a particular ingredient will contribute to, change, enhance the final product. Then the tasting while the concoction simmers, the judicious adjusting of the emerging creation. Serving the one that will earn from Shirley, “This is your best ever.” Music to my ears.
So no recipes, not even any hard won hints, in this blog. Maybe another time. Americans, we gotta get ourselves in shape. This blog points one way, via a personal journey, on how that can be achieved. Check the site below for nutritional information on ingredients in your favorite recipes. You may rethink them.