Where is the sweetness without the sugar?

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I have not eaten sugar in one year. People greet this information with almost universal disbelief and no small amount of skepticism. "No grain?" they say. "What in the world do you eat?" I assure them that I, in fact, eat most things, since grains are only one food group. But since I am prone to obsessing about something, my dietary strangeness has naturally progressed to a much bigger issue for me than just cooking dinner.

The happy thing about skipping the grain and sugar was I felt great; lots of long term, minor discomforts vanished in short order. The change was so great, and so pronounced, I knew I wouldn't return to processed food purgatory. And with the exception of eating one scoop of real raspberry ice cream on my birthday, I haven't. In many ways, I am not even really tempted, though the smell of baking bread can cause momentary delirium. I am quite happy without rice, pasta and English muffins, to say nothing of Snickers bars and chocolate chip cookies.

I have not fully forced this somewhat un-American dietary trend on my family. But they are not completely immune either. One day, in a scramble, I made my family pizza from a Boboli crust from the store. My daughter eyed the pizza. "Is that regular crust?" she demanded. When I confirmed its regularity, she ran from the kitchen yelling "Daddy, it's real pizza! We get real pizza! No cauliflower!" She scarfed down half the pizza, visibly afraid I might change my mind and wrest the pizza from her tiny hands.

But the holidays are creeping up, and I find myself unsure how to manage the with my heartfelt dietary commitments. Over time, this way of viewing food has grown from asking simply "What's for dinner?" to asking "How will my food affect my family? Or the environment?" I can't walk away from it from November to January. Also, its not that I want to go to Christmas parties and scarf down sugar cookies swimming in powdered sugar icing (not that I wouldn't in an earlier time). But at this time of year, what I crave is not the cookies, but the creation of food. Particularly my family's deep relationship with chocolate making.

Each year, all the women of my family have gathered in my aunt's kitchen for the weeks proceeding Christmas for the ritual of the candy making. We made about 10 varieties, flavors dictated by the preferences of the men absent from the kitchen. Each little candy we dipped in melted chocolate, one after another. And after several weeks, we had literally gallons of hand dipped chocolates, ready to go into the world as an example of our creativity, perseverance and solidarity.

When I moved to Alaska, I retained the tradition, but did it on my own. I expanded, too, to sophisticated truffles, toffees, and homemade caramels. It took me weeks to make them all, and I loved every moment. My joy was complete when I packaged tiny, real candy boxes for friends.

This year my daughter is finally old enough to help with candy production, and here I sit, unsure of what to do. I mourn the loss of the process, but am unwilling to sacrifice the commitment to my own health and what has now become a powerful belief about dietary best practices. I particularly mourn the loss of this activity with my daughter; so much of the wisdom of women has been passed over the communion of steam from hot stoves and the clutter of ingredients on the counter. Can I do the same thing over a roasting chicken as my family did over melted chocolate?

But for the holidays, I continue to feel bound by those whose wisdom was passed to me over mixing bowls and I seek a new way to reach out the same ways they did.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a teacher and parent in Juneau.

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