Boomeritis

Many baby boomers, among the first generation to be bitten by the exercise bug, are now paying the piper in pain.

Susan J. Long lives life in forward motion.

The Pasadena resident played competitive tennis in high school and college, and early in her marriage to Tom Long, both ran. When tennis beat up their joints too much, the couple started cycling in 2006, eventually riding up to 60 miles a day, and touring the U.S. and Europe. But by then, Long’s athleticism had taken its toll.

Enter pain. Long, now 68, first noticed it in her left knee in 2011.  Arthritis. She tried injections, topical ointments, physical therapy and over-the-counter NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for two years. Eventually, the pain exceeded her tolerance threshold. It would take a full two minutes for the wincing and hurt to subside when she stood up from sitting. Unable to cycle, Susan handed her bike to Tom, exasperated. “I am done,” she said.

In October 2013, she had complete knee replacement surgery. That was on top of another procedure she’d had 10 months earlier — a complete reverse reconstruction of her shoulder, replacing both the ball and socket with metal parts. The cause was a fall she’d sustained when she reacted too slowly to cyclists stopping suddenly in front of her. Her surgeon said existing osteoporosis had caused her shoulder to shatter so severely.

“So here I am, years later, cycling,” said Long, speaking by phone from New Zealand, where her cycling group was touring the island, pedaling up 2,000-foot-high hills and up to 50 miles a day. “Today we went deep into a cave where the glowworms are and then rafted down the river. I was thinking all along that I would never have been able to do any part of that tour if I hadn’t gotten a new knee.”

Aging baby boomers — the 76.4 million Americans born from 1946 to 1964 — are finding that habitually active lives have a flipside: painful arthritis and worn-out, achy joints. With many boomers ignoring their age as they engage in physical activities, some are outliving their joints.  Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term “boomeritis” to describe arthritis, tendonitis and bursitis afflicting aggressively physical boomers.

Indeed, arthritis is the leading cause of pain and disability globally, according to the Mayo Clinic. Recent studies suggest that by 2030, when the last of the baby boomers turns 65, the number of people 65 and older with arthritis and chronic joint symptoms will double. From 2010 to 2012, an estimated 52.5 million U.S. adults (22.7 percent) were diagnosed with arthritis (joint inflammation) and osteoarthritis (degenerative cartilage disease of the joints), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Boomers are faring worse than their parents for a couple of reasons: One, they are in the first generation to make vigorous exercise an important part of their lives, and any high-impact movements make their joints especially susceptible to arthritis. And previous injuries, such as torn ligaments, fractures or sprains, in their younger years can also lead to arthritis.

But fitness obsession isn’t the only cause of boomers’ joint ailments. Paradoxically, another problem is their weight: boomers have higher rates of obesity and arthritis than their parents, “the silent generation” (born 1925–42), and they were heavier at a younger age than their predecessors, a 2005 American Journal of Public Health study found. The study suggests that obesity contributes to more cases of arthritis in boomers, and the overweight 65-and-older set are at greater risk for arthritis. Some 23 percent of overweight older adults and 31 percent of the obese ones were diagnosed with arthritis, according to the study.

“Baby boomers are one of the biggest generations in total numbers, and they are staying physically active while they age, and they expect to stay active while they age,” said Dr. Thomas Muzzonigro, a Pennsylvania orthopedic surgeon who chairs the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons’ communications committee. “Older generations gave up physical activity as they aged. I never saw my grandparents do any active sports. They were old at 50.”

At 50, Dr. Muzzonigro is nothing of the sort, but the former rugby player is also an example of the boomeritis epidemic. He still works out and plays football and basketball, but his arthritic back prompted him to add yoga with his daughter. Though many boomers are still active and fit, he says that he has conversations with people all day “where I say, ‘You know you have two bad knees, but I cannot do surgery safely unless you lose weight.’ Then they say, ‘How can I lose weight when I have two bad knees?’”

For Brandon Flowers, 53, fitness is not just a lifestyle but also a calling. As owner of Dynamix Strength Advantage in Eagle Rock for the past 24 years, he lives what he preaches. Flowers uses weights, rubber-tubing resistance training, balance boards, stability balls and discs in his training sessions. He offers them twice weekly for employees at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and for cancer survivors at The Wellness Community in Pasadena. But after a life of playing football, running and working out, Flowers’ knee was shot despite employing all his own strengthening tactics. “I had severe tri-compartmental degenerative arthritis,” he said, adding that he was three weeks post-surgery and rehabbing with ice and elevation. “The technical term for what the MRI showed was the tibia and thigh bone were kissing each other.”

A self-described “big guy,” Flowers had knee surgery in high school to repair torn ligaments. His knee became arthritic and by the time he was 50, an orthopedic doctor said he would need a new joint. Three weeks into recovery, he is stir crazy but energized by the prospect of returning to an active life, pain-free. “The knee got to a point where I just could not keep going,” he said. “I was living with ice packs and anti-inflammatory [drugs] and physical therapy.”

Around 7 million Americans are living with a hip or knee replacement and, in most cases, are mobile, according to the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery 2015 study. About 1 million replacement surgeries are done annually. By 2030, when the youngest boomers turn 65 and the oldest boomers are 84, annual demand for total hip replacement is estimated to almost triple, from 209,000 to 572,000. Total knee replacement is estimated to increase more than seven times over the same period, from 450,000 to 3.48 million a year.

Recovery from knee or hip replacement surgery is arduous, but Flowers is sure he will get back to his “normal” active self. The doctor said he could expect to be 80 percent back to normal in 10 to 12 weeks. As for Long, she said that with each surgery (she also broke her neck in a car accident), she feared she would never reclaim her former life as an active and vibrant woman. “Much to my surprise, in each case, I did recover,” she said. “With my broken shoulder I thought I would never be able to lift even a coffee cup and with my knee, I thought I would never be able to push one pedal stroke on a bike. The body is an amazing thing. It does heal, along with the heart and soul.”

Julena Lind, 69, a retired university administrator, is six months into her recovery from a hip replacement surgery. A life of running, jumping, skiing, skating, high-impact aerobics and squatting, plus genetics (her mother had arthritis and hip replacements) had resulted in arthritic hip pain which first appeared in occasional twinges at age 60. But the pain did not impinge on her ability to exercise as intensely as she liked for some time. It would be eight years later, when the pain grew so severe that Lind stopped high-impact workouts but continued doing low-impact training sessions.

“There was no way I could run, do jumping jacks or squats anymore,” said Lind, who sat gingerly, nursing a cup of Earl Grey tea, at Starbucks. “My ortho said you need a hip placement, you have no more cartilage. It is bone on bone.” Whippet-thin and a longtime exercise addict, Lind says she decided at that appointment not to have the surgery yet. She wanted to wait until it ‘‘hurt a lot.’’

That didn’t take long. “Ten months later, it hurt a lot,” said the Santa Monica resident, and her doctor again recommended surgery. “I was able to accept it,” she said. “The ortho said you are going to do fine. You are fit.” On the third day post-surgery, Lind walked for 2½ hours along the Venice Boardwalk.  On the fifth day, she returned to the gym doing three to four low-impact aerobic classes a week. But, no more jumping or low squats. Ever.

Some boomers try musculoskeletal strengthening and fitness training rather than surgery. One of them is Patti Sheaff, 61, who has been surfing for 48 years. She started skydiving at 28 and snowboarding in her early 40s, which took her all over the U.S. and Canada. With all that snowboarding, her sacrum (lower spine) took a thorough beating, fracturing several times. After a bad fall in 2010, the Santa Monica adventurer had to hang up her snowboarding boots. A bone density test revealed she had arthritis, scoliosis and osteoarthritis. Yearly bone density tests, she says, show continuing bone loss.

To abate it, Line drinks bone broth and takes supplements with bisphosphonates, calcium and magnesium. For two years, she stopped taking any pain medication and has been doing isometric poses combined with disciplined breathing exercises to strengthen her body’s musculoskeletal structure. She has been able to surf, paddleboard and body surf pain-free. “The idea [of isometric exercises] is for the muscular structure to absorb the impact of pounding rather than your skeleton,” she said, adding that she is studying a strengthening method to reduce pain, touted by buff actor Chris Hemsworth, called Foundation Training; it was created by a North Carolina–based chiropractor named Eric Goodman (foundationtraining.com).

Joint replacement surgery is major surgery and the remedy of last resort. Rehabilitation and physical therapy is typically prescribed for three months or more. It can be challenging and painful. But many boomers who opt for surgery to stay active say it is worth it. Today’s state-of-the-art materials and methods are far better than even what was available in 2000, Muzzinigro said. Replacements simply last longer, so that if a person in his/her 50s or 60s undergoes joint replacement today, it will likely last a lifetime.

Even though boomers typically pursue a physically active life, most understand that at some point, they may have to alter their attack-it attitude. As for the Longs, who have found their post-tennis passion in travel cycling with a tight group of friends, they know at some point they may need an assist. “Electric bikes are coming into fashion,” said Susan Long, referring to what is known as “pedal-assist electric bikes.”  “And we often say now that when we get into our 80s, perhaps we’ll want to get that extra boost!

Saving Seniors

The Pasadena Community Foundation’s blueprint for philanthropy by and for the elderly

You might say that Cornelia Eaton is a patron saint of Pasadena’s seniors. When she died in 1995, she left her entire estate — $816,225 — to the Pasadena Community Foundation, dedicating it to the city’s elderly, in a gift that keeps on giving in a way she couldn’t have imagined.

Eaton requested that the PCF use her bequest for only one purpose: to help local senior citizens who are financially, physically and/or mentally frail. Her gift is making a big impact in Pasadena, yet little is publicly known about her beyond her philanthropy and her modest home, which was razed to make way for the 210 Freeway. Jennifer DeVoll, executive director of PCF for the past 14 years, says neither she nor the foundation has information about Eaton’s life, but she knows almost everything about Eaton’s donation: Since the mystery woman’s death, the foundation has distributed more than the original $816,000 to charitable groups in the Pasadena area, DeVoll says. As of this year, the Cornelia L. Eaton Endowment for Assistance to the Elderly fund has amassed an additional $1.6 million yet to be distributed — and it’s still growing. Ms. Eaton’s name and fund will live in perpetuity, DeVoll says, and that’s just one of the beauties of giving to a community foundation.

The idea of giving locally can be particularly intriguing in an engaged community  like Arroyoland, where so many families live in bucolic splendor and have such passion for preserving their neighborhoods and cultural institutions while helping those less fortunate who may live nearby. Arroyo Monthly interviewed Jennifer DeVoll to find out more about Pasadena Community Foundation and the benefits of local philanthropy. The bottom line, it seems from listening to DeVoll, is that if you love where you live and want to preserve and maintain your neighborhoods and the people who live in and near them, then you might want to give to a foundation that works to uplift and sustain the local way of life. Of course, there are a million worthy causes, but one that stands out is helping those close to home — your neighbors in need.

ARROYO MONTHLY: What is the Pasadena Community Foundation?

JENNIFER DEVOLL: Community foundations, in general, are a unique type of charitable organization. They’re tax-exempt public charities, typically organized with an interest in a particular geography. They do fund-raising and grant-making primarily for local nonprofit organizations, so they work with local donors to establish and amass general funds and then make grants from those funds with an emphasis on giving locally. So far, PCF has distributed over $40 million through donor-advised funds. We work with individuals and their advisors to establish charitable funds for groups they care about today, and also to create a permanent legacy for the future.

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What geographical area does PCF cover? Is it only Pasadena?

No, it’s the greater Pasadena area, including all the communities that border Pasadena.

Can you give some examples of organizations to whom you make grants?

In general, we cover six areas of interest locally: arts and culture, education, environment, health, youth and human services, with a special emphasis on the elderly. Individuals leave bequests for seniors to our organization, we invest the money and create a perpetual fund. The Eaton Endowment, for example,  is part of PCF’s senior grants program to aid seniors in need through such organizations as the Senior Care Network at Huntington Hospital, Meals on Wheels, the Pasadena Senior Center and Pasadena Villa, to name a few. But this is just one example. Others leave bequests for a variety of different uses, which we invest to create perpetual sources of support for whatever group or institution they’re particularly passionate about and wish to support.

Do you do any work with those who might want to volunteer their time to help these charitable groups?

No. We’re really a grant-maker and funder. We read applications, we do site visits, we meet the executive directors of local nonprofits. We concentrate on having very strong relationships with local nonprofits and our community in general, so we know who is really doing a good job, and what kind of impact they’re making on the local community. We focus on those who are making a difference right now in any area of interest.

How did you manage to distribute nearly all of Ms. Eaton’s original bequest and still have $1.5 million left, and growing, in her endowment?

We have $64.5 million in 300 different charitable funds that we manage through a Vanguard stock and bond portfolio. We have an extremely sophisticated finance investment committee on our board that oversees the Vanguard [investments]. They are all volunteers. For example, one of our investment committee volunteers is Sandra Ell, who was the chief investment officer for Caltech for many years. Now she volunteers helping with our investments. We make distributions every year from the earnings of our funds.

Who typically donates to PCF?

Last year we received $17 million in donations, mostly from Pasadena and surrounding-area residents,  along with bequests from people that have lived here. We also receive donations from organizations that partner with us. They give us their endowment to manage because we have a good, large diversified portfolio that has done well. We have a few instances where nonprofits have gone out of business and have a little money left, and they give an endowment to us to sort of carry on their mission.

Has there been any recent shift in services to the senior population?

Yes. A few years ago we suspended our program while we did research to find the biggest impact we could have on our senior population, and looked at the many providers of service to seniors in the community. We found an emerging food insecurity. Seniors were going hungry. The rising costs of health care and medications were causing them to sacrifice buying food so they could try to pay for medicine and care. So we changed our focus on senior grant-making, so that a larger part of it goes to food programs like those at the senior center, Meals on Wheels and the food pantry.

Do you have any specific programs for seniors who want to donate?

Yes, we have a new one called a Charitable Gift Annuity that’s for people 65 or older, with a minimum donation of $10,000. Based on your age and the size of your donation, you’ll receive an income stream for life. An 85-year-old person, for example, will receive 7.8 percent interest on whatever amount they donate. So if you give $100,000 you get a guaranteed annual income of $7,800 for life. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a way to give money for a local cause you believe in, and yet get something back each year to assist with your own living expenses.

Taking the Medical Mountain to Mohammed

Glendale tested a pilot program bringing paramedics’ emergency care into people’s homes.

For seven years, paramedic Gil Mejia was accustomed to the fast-paced action of emergency care: the quick response, the swift assessment of a patient in need, the near-immediate transport to a hospital or care center. When offered a chance to spend more one-on-one quality time with patients — especially seniors — Mejia raised his hand in a flash.

“When you are responding to 911 calls, there is no time to be personable. We are trained to follow certain steps in certain situations,” says Mejia. The Glendale paramedic participated in a statewide pilot program last year that could change the landscape for emergency care by expanding from ambulances and hospitals into patients’ homes. “So many of the people I met over the year made me feel like part of their family, offering me coffee and lunch,” says Mejia. “They would tell me, ‘No one has ever spent this much time with me.’ They were very grateful for the program. It was a very humbling experience for me.”

Called “community paramedicine,” the program expands the role of Emergency Medical Service (EMS) providers to use their life-saving skills in deeper and more extensive interactions with the public. That could be especially helpful for seniors, invested in their own or a loved one’s medical care, who may have great difficulty getting to a hospital. Across the country, community paramedicine has been embraced by many states as a way to provide better care while avoiding boosting the already sky-high costs of insurance and hospitalizations. In 2014, the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians identified more than 100 community paramedicine services in the country. That number has grown to more than 260 today.

Working with other social-welfare providers, community paramedics can target a variety of health issues; they can help “repeat callers” with chronic conditions that prompt them to dial 911 time and time again, avoiding visits to the already crowded (and pricey) emergency room. Projects elsewhere in California focus on alternative destinations, with paramedics transporting patients to locations other than hospital ERs, such as urgent care clinics, behavioral health facilities or sobering centers.

These new projects allow California to dip its collective toes in the water, testing how a new approach by paramedics would work in the state’s diverse communities, from densely urban to vastly rural. “There is a national movement to transition to expand the role of EMS providers,” says Harold Backer, director of the state Emergency Medical Services Authority. “California is not in the forefront, since we have more restrictive status for paramedics that limit the scope of their work to the scene of the emergency, in transit and at the hospital. But we have outlets to test new roles, and that’s what these pilot projects are all about.”

California’s pilot programs (funded with individual cities’ budgets) have varied in focus, but the goal has been the same: Dispatch paramedics – those friendly, welcoming faces – to prevent a medical crisis rather than respond to one. “Think about it,” says Backer. “Paramedics are perfectly suited to bridge the gap. They go everywhere, are on 24/7 and are trained to deal with anyone – homeless people, substance abusers, etc. It makes sense to use them and their expertise and have them collaborating with existing services.”

California pilot programs ran the gamut from targeting frequent 911 callers and offering alternative destinations to collaborating with hospice nurses for home care and working with public health officials to help monitor tuberculous patients. “Community paramedicine may be a more effective use of our time and resources,” says Glendale Fire Chief Greg Fish. In 2016, his department received 19,446 calls, of which about 86 percent were medical in nature, Fish says, adding, “This idea also lets the patients hold their own health in their hands – and we are there to coach them along.”

The City of Glendale sponsored two pilot projects that ran from September 2015 to September 2016. The one involving alternative destinations enrolled only 12 patients; officials suspect the paperwork load turned off more potential participants. The other project, however, was more successful, enrolling 154 patients with congestive heart failure for home follow-up care after their discharge from Glendale Adventist Hospital. Since these patients typically have high readmission rates, paramedics like Mejia made home visits within three days of the patient’s discharge to make sure they were following doctors’ recommendations and that their lifestyle and home environment were fostering recovery. Follow-up care after congestive heart failure is critical, says Mejia, adding that after a hospital stay, people are often confused and/or weak and “don’t  take their medications properly, don’t make follow-up appointments or revert back to unhealthy eating habits. Some don’t have the support system they need at home to help them make the changes they need to make.”

Mejia first met the patients – most between 70 and 78 years old – in the hospital, told them about the program and got their consent to participate. He spent time visiting them in the hospital, so when they met later in patients’ homes, he would be a familiar face. Bilingual in Spanish and English, Mejia also had an Armenian translator with him when necessary.

His home visits were a stark contrast to his typical emergency response workload. Instead of rushing against the clock, Mejia would spend on average two hours at patients’ homes. “Each patient had a different set of needs and you had to tailor your visits to their needs and their mental stability,” he says.

Mejia monitored vital signs and checked for any possible complications that might require a return trip to either doctor or hospital. He examined the discharge papers, making sure the patient had the correct prescriptions and doses; if not, he made arrangements with the local pharmacy, doctor and insurance company. And he organized the medications (“That was always a huge endeavor”), and confirmed that patients had not only scheduled their follow-up doctor visit but, if necessary, arranged transportation. Mejia also assessed patients’ physical environments: Could they easily get around? Do they have a family to support them? Do they live alone? Is there a neighbor who helps out? Regular home health-care visit? What’s in their kitchen? Are they eating the right kinds of food?

“I would show them how to read a label, especially pointing out sodium levels,” says Mejia. “A lot of them were surprised to realize what they were eating had a lot of sodium in it. As with their medication, once you explained what each one did physically for them, you could see the light bulb go off when they made a connection. Doctors often don’t have time to get down to the details with patients.”

This kind of personalized attention to detail is what will make paramedicine even more effective, says Sandra Shewry of the California Health Care Foundation, which funded the final evaluations of California’s pilot projects. “I think this is the next wave of the future,” she says. “The secret sauce here is using trusted health professionals, especially when seniors want to stay longer in their own homes these days.”

UC San Francisco researchers’ evaluations of last year’s projects show promising successes; the data is expected to be used to develop two state bills, currently in their early stages, that would expand the kinds of services paramedics may provide. Both AB 820, introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson), and AB 1650, proposed by Assemblyman Brian Maienschein (R-San Diego), are what are known as “spot bills” – they indicate the author’s interest and intent to make a proposal on a topic but do not contain all the details.

Maienschein explains why community paramedicine could be an important advance, especially when it comes to seniors’ health. “AB 1650 will help increase access to care, while also reducing the overall cost of healthcare — two issues that especially affect the senior population,” he says. “By preventing excess trips to the emergency room and pairing patients with a health care advocate, community paramedicine will protect and promote the well-being of seniors throughout the community.”

But not everyone agrees: Legislators may face pushback from medical organizations that have historically objected to community paramedicine expansion, arguing it may be detrimental to patient care. “We oppose expanding the role of paramedics beyond their current scope of practice because it potentially endangers public health,” says Don Nielsen, Government Relations Director of the California Nurses Association. “The pilot projects for community paramedicine were unnecessary public health experiments that allowed paramedics to undertake care currently performed by physicians, RNs and social workers, without the additional training to acquire the level of expertise and skill needed.”

Elena Lopez-Gusman, executive director of the California Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians (CALACEP), says she doesn’t object to paramedics offering services to patients in their homes soon after they’re released from the hospital. “That’s additional care and we aren’t opposed to that,” she says. “But we look at risk assessment and the concept of taking those with mental illness or who are chronically inebriated to facilities other than an ER. They deserve the same care as other patients and shouldn’t be singled out.”

Most medical groups will not take a definitive position – pro or con – until the bills’ details are in print, probably this summer.

Paramedicine for civilians is actually a relatively new idea. Emergency medical services originated in war; in ancient Rome, aging centurions were tasked with removing the wounded from the battlefield and tending to them. Fast forward to the makeshift field hospitals of the Civil War, where triage was introduced; likewise, helicopters (medivacs) were used in World War II and the Korean War to evacuate injured soldiers.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that mobile medical care was provided to the general public; initially, nurses accompanied other medical professionals in the field. Following the passage of the Wedsworth-Townsend Act in 1970, Los Angeles County and City established the country’s first paramedic programs, followed by cities, states and countries around the world.

The concept got a big boost from the fictional 1970s television series Emergency! which followed paramedics on the job in L.A. County. When the show first aired in 1972 there were only six paramedic units operating in three pilot programs; by the time the show ended in 1979, paramedical teams operated in all 50 states.

These days, paramedicine may be poised for a new paradigm shift – and paramedics like Mejia are eagerly awaiting their prospective new duties. “I see the need and how we can make a difference for our patients, many who are senior citizens,” he says. Mejia shares the story of one home visit with a patient who needed to vent considerable frustration for about 20 minutes before getting down to business. “He knew I wasn’t there for that, but he looked me in the eye afterward and said, ‘Thank you for listening. You took the time to hear me and I appreciate it.’ That to me says it all.”

The Russian Kitchen: A Primer

It’s never too early to brush up on your Russian cooking skills.

As we collectively shudder at the political events of the past weeks and pray it is not the beginning of Lenin’s “capitalism in decay,” it occurs to me that I am utterly unprepared for life under a Russian flag. It will be hard to be a Russian chef if I know nothing about Russian cuisine. I learned how to make coulibiac and charlotte russe in culinary school.  But these are dishes of the pre-Soviet aristocracy (and created by French chefs). I know Russians like vodka, borscht and caviar, but that’s going to get old fast. Therefore, I decided that it behooves us all to get better acquainted with the Russian kitchen.     

Traditional Russian food is wildly diverse (it was a huge country, even before Soviet era).

It incorporates many cuisines from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The typical meal consisted of several courses, starting with a soup — hot or cold, made from a base of kvass (a fermented bread beverage), broth, milk or puréed vegetables or grains. Kasha (porridge), made from a variety of grains, was a staple, as were a number of dumpling-like foods, including pot-sticker-like pelmeni; and the ubiquitous pirozhki, stuffed with meats, boiled eggs, potato, mushrooms or cabbage. Meat and offal were prepared in a hundred ways — boiled in broth, roasted and baked, skewered and spitfired, pickled and cured. Blini were topped with fruits, smetana (sour cream) or caviar. 

Food was good until the revolution, when the kitchen itself became politicized. The intention was to make all people equal. This required, among other things, relieving women from kitchen work, and encouraging them to develop other interests. (It’s the thought that counts, right?) But more to the point, the bourgeois idea of private property included private, personal kitchens. This led to houses being built without them, forcing people to eat in state-operated stolovaya (canteens). Food shortages and famine soon limited the mass-produced canteen fare. Stations served reliably similar dishes day in and out: a mayonnaise-based salad of meats or vegetables, a soup, a solid (which meant meat of some kind — chicken cutlets, fish, beef fried to oblivion, stringy mutton, liver in gravy), a garnish (usually a grain), a drink and a dessert. Limited ingredients and limited cooking methods emphasize the idea that food, and the pleasure it derives, was itself anachronistic and bourgeois.   

Under Stalin, food, like everything else, became industrialized. Food was fuel, after all, and the canteens became healthy-worker factories controlled by the Central Commission of Restaurants and Cafés. This commission designed every menu, every day, incorporating the latest nutritional science. Eventually the spread expanded, as the commission realized that more flavors and options lead to a healthier appetite. Foods from the expansive Soviet regions were incorporated, and boiled chuck and cabbage gave way to kebabs.

In addition to kitchenless homes, there were communal apartments. In structures that had once housed one aristocratic family, there were now 10 families sharing one kitchen. In these apartments there may well have been a spy who would rat out you and your radical opinions, so the kitchen was not a place to hang. Families would cook their cabbage soup and porridge, then carry it down the hall to eat in their room. 

By the 1950s even communal housing couldn’t alleviate the severe overcrowding, and during the Khrushchev Thaw, construction of Khrushchyovka began. These five-story cement apartment buildings were made quick and on the cheap. But at least the units were meant for one family each, and they had kitchens. It was here, around these kitchen tables, that Russian culture thrived. Despite the new, more liberal policies, there was still censorship, and there was no way to meet and discuss art or politics in public. But in the kitchen, groups of people could meet, and they did. Here, poetry and literature was self-published — typed in carbon copies on government-issued typewriters and passed from friend to friend. (Dr. Zhivago was written this way.) Here, banned music was recorded using handmade recording lathes to etch grooves onto old X-ray film. (It’s now known as “bone music.”) All of this happened over shared vodka, brown bread and pickled vegetables. Sure, there was probably a KGB agent in the stairwell. But as a chef, I like the thought that, when things spin out of control, there is some comfort to be had by the stove.

Then, in 1959, in a kitchen at the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow, Vice President Richard Nixon met and tried to make nice with Nikita Khrushchev. At an exhibit of a typical American home that any American could afford (at $14,000), Nixon proudly pointed out the technologically advanced dishwasher. Khrushchev crowed that the Soviets would catch up in a few years and would then quickly surpass the United States. When Nixon lost the election in 1960, Khrushchev proudly took responsibility. (Everything old is new again.)

So, I’m thinking that now is a good time to get your kitchen ducks in a row.  Be sure you’re stocked up on vodka, brown bread and pickles, and cultivate a group of friends you can trust. But do it on the down-low.

Soviet Pickled Mushrooms

Pickled vegetables began out of necessity, but gradually became beloved. Now there is a salty-sour component to most Russian meals. I’m thinking we should all brush up on our food preservations skills now, while we can.

Ingredients

3 pounds button mushrooms, stems removed (save them for mushroom soup!)

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1/3 cup cider vinegar

1/3 cup wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sea salt

4 cloves chopped garlic

1 large yellow onion, sliced

2 bay leaves, crushed

1 bunch of fresh dill, chopped

Method

1. Sterilize a couple of large jars and lids (I do it by running them through a dishwasher). Pack the jars with the mushrooms, then set aside.

2. In a large saucepan combine oil, vinegars, salt, garlic, onion, bay and dill. Bring it to a boil, then pour over mushrooms, filling to a quarter-inch below the top of the jar. Close the lids and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days. Serve chilled with vodka, brown bread and hope.


Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

Dotson and Tennessee

Dotson Rader’s play about close friend Tennessee Williams has its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, with Al Pacino starring as the brilliant, tormented playwright.

To kick off its new development program, PlayWorks, the Pasadena Playhouse is setting the bar high with its inaugural production of Dotson Rader’s God Looked Away, starring Oscar- and Tony-winner Al Pacino. The acclaimed actor portrays Southern playwright Tennessee Williams in a turbulent period of his life, following years of fame sparked by the critical success of The Glass Menagerie in 1944 and a string of other plays now part of the American theatrical lexicon: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on A Hot Tin Roof (1955), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) and more.

Joining Pacino on the boards is Judith Light (Transparent), a two-time Tony-winner, as Williams’ close friend Estelle, and Miles Gaston Villanueva (Jane the Virgin) as Baby. Directed by Robert Allen Ackerman, the production runs until March 19.

Williams’ work is no stranger to The Pasadena Playhouse, which served as the backdrop for three of his world premieres in the 1940s: You Touched Me in 1943 (co-written with Donald Windham), The Purification (1944) and Stairs to the Roof in 1947. More than 20 years later, writer and novelist Rader befriended Williams and later wrote a memoir about their close friendship: Tennessee, Cry of the Heart (1982). Both were gay men — never romantically linked — from different eras, who bonded at a time when taboos against homosexuality were beginning to be challenged in America.

Rader started writing a play about Williams after the playwright’s death in 1983 but later shelved it. He resurrected the project about a year ago, workshopping the play with Pacino. who, according to Rader, has uncannily captured Williams’ humor, pride and stubbornness as well as his unyielding defense of people living on the fringes of society.

Arroyo Monthly: You’ve written fiction, nonfiction and even a memoir about Tennessee. Why write a play, something you’ve never done?

Dotson Rader: Well, he was a playwright! I started working on this six months after he died because I was afraid of losing him. I’m aware that memory corrodes and memory revises itself and memory becomes unreliable. I wanted to get it all down. I also started to see things being written about him that were just not true and they were sanitizing his life. This happens all the time. They were making him acceptable — and part of his brilliance was his willingness to write about things that were unacceptable, about the outcasts and the broken, the disconsolate, the rejected of life, the wretched — all qualities that, in ways, you could apply to him.

This is the first play in the PlayWorks program. What are you looking forward to?

The live audience is like a second writer on the project. We are trying to get this play where it needs to be. We’ve had table readings, roundtables and workshops, but when you put it in front of a live audience, you see things so differently. You sense when the audience is getting restless or bored. Things you thought would bring a laugh don’t. Things you thought would get a little twitter get a big laugh. You gradually learn what works. Every other kind of writing, you’re dealing with a magazine editor, a movie director or other editors and that is really an audience of one. But not with a live audience…It’s exciting.

How has it been to see your words leap from the page to the mouths of actors?

Tennessee was difficult, we had arguments, but we loved each other. It’s like Lionel Trilling’s line about a marriage, “So often the very thing that makes a marriage unbearable, makes it unbreakable.” We were friends for 14 years, and I can only say this about a handful of people: not once, ever, was I bored. He was very self-dramatic, but he was so alive. And Pacino brings that vividness of Tennessee to life.

We had our first reading with Al about a year ago and I sat there listening to the actors read and I don’t know how the hell he does it, but Al caught the cadence of the way Tennessee talked. I could close my eyes and I could hear Tennessee.

Tell us why you chose this particular point in the playwright’s life.

The play takes place in 1981 and in the present. The play opens like Menagerie with a monologue by Baby, the narrator. All you’ll see on the stage are Baby’s memories of Tennessee, because that is all that exists now, because Tennessee is dead and everyone is gone. It’s over. Finished. These events take place so long ago and Baby is the survivor, like Tom in Menagerie. The play, his memory, is colored by his own feelings, as memory is.

I picked this point in Tennessee’s life because that is when the final bell rang. I don’t want to say too much, but this was a critical point in his life, this one weekend in Chicago, the weekend of his last play. Chicago is where fame found him, it’s where Menagerie opened; he had been a bit of a failed writer until then; his first play, Battle of Angels, flopped terribly. Suddenly Menagerie became this incredible phenomenon. Chicago is where success found him — only now, success is gone. And he’s back in Chicago hoping it will happen again.

A lot of what you’ll hear Tennessee say, he said in real life. Everyone is based on real people and I could tell you who they are, but I’m not going to. (Laughs.) You’ll see!

Why is God looking away?

The play will tell you that.

Like many artists, Williams was keenly creative but he also fought many inner demons, especially later in his life — alcoholism, drug addiction, abusive personal relationships. How do you make these moments a serious examination of life, loss and character on stage, instead of just a presentation of sensational events?

What’s in the play is in the play because it is true. These things are here because there is a theatrical reason for it, because it serves the drama. Look at this way: You’ve been married to someone for a long time and you have two hours to tell people what that person was like — so you edit his life, you pick out what is most representative of what it was like being with this person. While the play covers a weekend, that weekend becomes representational. The audience has to leave understanding why and where he was and why the play ended the way it did. The play is about the stripping away — everyone on the stage is stripping away, pulling off masks. As the play goes on, people reveal themselves as who they actually are. Things that don’t seem at all remarkable or sensationalistic to me, others may find discomforting. But truth is discomforting. I don’t want to be part of the coterie of sycophants and academics who sanitize the lives of public figures. Theater is a safe place where you can hear the truth — even when it is uncomfortable. (Pause) Maybe what you see on stage is the price he had to pay to give us the beauty he created.

What do you want the new generation of theatergoers to understand about Tennessee Williams, the man?

The play begins in the present and we step into the past, on that cusp of history just after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan; 1981 is the end of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s the end of that period of freedom, of social experimentation, of when people didn’t know that drugs were bad, of sex being wide open — that incredible period comparable to France and Weimar Germany in the 1920s. When every question was open, every possibility presented itself, when all restraints were gone.

It was also the period right before the beginning of AIDS and the beginning of terror. We started to realize that something was happening. We were losing friends and it suddenly begins to dawn on us the price we have paid for personal freedom. It’s a period in American social and artistic history that isn’t going to happen again. Not only in terms of Tennessee’s career — it’s about the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another in American history.

I think young people will like the play because it deals with freedom and a world without fear, unlike what they know now.

Is the play hopeful?

The play is true.

What would Williams think about the social media culture of 2017? Would he tweet?

Tennessee used a manual typewriter until he died. He didn’t like electric typewriters. If he were here today, he’d still be on Key West typing on his old Royal manual typewriter.

What do you miss most about Tennessee?

Of all the people I’ve known in my life, he had the most real presence. He was so completely aware of life and where people were around him. And he was sensitive to them. That’s what I miss the most. He had intense sympathy for the losers in life, for the marginalized, for the people who were beaten before they even began.

He had great contempt for the money people. The only problems he ever had with his plays, and what ultimately undid him, was with the money people. “Oh, you can’t write that! The matinee crowd won’t go for that!!!” He knew he needed them, but he often thought, “If you had so much money, can’t you make the world hurt a little less?” He got involved in the anti-war movement and protests with me and he was always baffled by the problems that could be fixed with just a little bit of money.

Tennessee, I don’t mean to speak for him, but you can see it in his plays, saw the immorality of money people who don’t put money into things that matter — like art, writers and the truth — but who spend only on themselves. He quoted Andrew Carnegie, “A man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” Tennessee saw his own talent and many gifts — he was a Christian, you see — from God as challenges to see if we can use them for good. Tennessee used his gifts the best way he knew how, on behalf of the people who had no voice.

God Looked Away runs through March 19 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. The curtain rises at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tuesday performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. Feb. 14 and 28. Ticket prices range from $126 to $206. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.

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A Garland of Public Gardens

Here is a baker’s dozen of lush nearby gardens where you can get back to nature.

The days are getting longer, the weather gloriously warmer. It’s the perfect time of year to visit the many lush gardens blooming in Arroyoland and its environs. Whether botanical, meditative or drought-resistant, they each have something to brighten your day — flowers to buy, plants to admire, opportunities to learn. David R. Brown, the executive director of Descanso Gardens, says, “Botanical gardens attract visitors in search of an experience close to nature. Part of their purpose is to connect people to plants and cultivate a greater appreciation for the connectedness and interdependence of life on earth.” Here are 13 gardens, botanical and otherwise, that do just that.

Arlington Garden

295 Arlington Dr., Pasadena

(626) 441-4478 | arlingtongardenpasadena.com

The three-acre Arlington has been delighting locals since 2005, when Betty and Charles McKenney, in a public-private collaboration, turned the land, owned by Caltrans and leased to the City of Pasadena, into a water-wise oasis of more than 350 trees and thousands of drought-tolerant and native plants, highlighting many that are rare, endangered and native to California — San Diego ambrosia, bush anemone, rainbow manzanita and big-cone spruce among them. An Italian-style allée, a pathway flanked by sycamores leading to a vernal pool, a grid-pattern orange grove, a seven-circuit labyrinth and meandering paths all add to the garden’s charm. 

Open/Hours: Daily until dusk. On-leash pets are welcome.

Entrance Fee: None. Open to the public.

Fun Fact: The garden’s orange grove yields hundreds of pounds of oranges, which are made into marmalade by E. Waldo Ward & Sons and sold locally at the Pasadena Farmers’ Market at Victory Park, Jones Coffee Roasters and Heirloom Bakery, among others. Proceeds support the garden’s care and maintenance.

Descanso Gardens

1418 Descanso Dr., La Cañada Flintridge

(818) 949-4200 | descansogardens.org

The land on which the 150-acre Descanso Gardens sits once belonged to E. Manchester Boddy, the owner of the now-defunct Los Angeles Daily News (no relation to the current Los Angeles Daily News). It was there he built his 22-room mansion, still a centerpiece of the gardens, in 1937. During World War II, when Japanese-Americans were being sent to internment camps, Boddy bought two successful Japanese nurseries, acquiring nearly 100,000 camellias and subsequently running a commercial camellia garden from the property. Today, Descanso Gardens also includes a lilac garden, rosarium, xeriscape, Japanese teahouse and a bird sanctuary. The Descanso Gardens Enchanted Railroad, a one-eighth-scale replica of a diesel train, takes visitors around a section of the park four days a week. Boddy House is available for special events including weddings, conferences and filming; and the Stuart Haaga Gallery, free with admission, rotates exhibits throughout the year.

Open/Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.

Entrance Fee: $9; seniors (65+) and students with ID, $6; children 5–12, $4; members and children under 5, free.

Fun Fact: Prior to Boddy selling his estate to the County of Los Angeles in 1953, Walt Disney considered the land as a potential site for Disneyland.

Exposition Park Rose Garden

701 State Dr., Los Angeles

(213) 763-0114 | laparks.org/park/exposition-rose-garden

Though Exposition Park opened in 1913, the seven-acre sunken rose garden wasn’t built until 1927.  In 1933, the L.A. Times described it as the “greatest rose garden in the world”; in 1991, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today there are 20,000 rose bushes and 200 varieties. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular spot for weddings and photography. So that the roses can be pruned, the garden is closed from Jan. 1 to March 15 by the L.A. City Department of Recreation and Parks, which has been operating it since 1928.

Open/Hours: Daily, 8:30 a.m. to dusk.

Entrance Fee: None; the city charges for photography and weddings.

Fun Fact: Before the turn of the 20th century, the garden’s precursor, Agricultural Park, was a locale for horse, camel, greyhound and auto racing; a saloon that housed L.A.’s longest bar; and an elegant brothel.

Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino
(626) 405-2100 | huntington.org

The Huntington, home to rare manuscripts, important artwork and a dozen spectacular gardens spread across 120 acres, is well known as a cultural jewel in the San Gabriel Valley. Guests can find just about everything here, from lily ponds to the Australian, Desert and Jungle gardens, to fine examples of Chinese and Japanese gardens, to rose and camellia collections, just to name a few. The Helen and Peter Bing Children’s Garden is designed for little ones ages 2 through 7, while the Huntington Ranch is a demonstration garden that holds workshops and classes focused on sustainable urban agriculture. The Huntington also has annual spring and fall plant sales and free second-Thursday lectures featuring gardening experts and authors.
Open/Hours: Wednesday–Monday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays.
Entrance Fee: Adults $23 ($25 weekends); seniors (65+) $19 ($21 weekends); youth (4–11), $10; under 4, free.
Fun Fact: Most of the sculptures found throughout the gardens are from the late 17th and early 18th centuries and share a common theme: love.

James Irvine Japanese Garden

244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles

(213) 628-2725 | jaccc.org/jamesirvinejapanesegarden/

Folks in the know visit the secluded and award-winning James Irvine Japanese Garden, a hidden oasis in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo, by going through the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. Also known as Seiryu-en or “Garden of the Clear Stream,” it presents an assortment of plants, flowers and blooming trees, cedar bridges, stone lanterns and a hand-washing fountain. This serene sanctuary was patterned in the Zen tradition after the famous gardens of Kyoto, and is also available as a venue for an outdoor wedding or other special event.

Open/Hours: Tuesday–Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; call for weekend schedule.

Entrance Fee: None.

Fun Fact: The garden features a 170-foot cascading stream.

Kyoto Gardens

120 S. Los Angeles St., Los Angeles

(213) 629-1200 | doubletreeladowntown.com/our-hotel/kyoto-gardens

Another hidden gem in Little Tokyo, Kyoto Gardens, a tranquil half-acre of plants, flowers, waterfalls and ponds, is perched on the rooftop of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel. It is a re-creation of an ancient Japanese garden in Tokyo created for the 16th-century samurai Lord Kiyomasa Kato. Kyoto Gardens is available for weddings, private photography and filming; groups of 50 or more can enjoy an elaborate afternoon tea ($48).

Open/Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.–10 p.m. seven days a week; call ahead to make sure no event is scheduled.

Entrance Fee: None

Fun Fact: A number of movie and TV projects have been filmed at the garden, including Her, Rampart, The Runaways, Law & Order: Los Angeles, The Biggest Loser and NCIS Los Angeles, among others.

Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens

5333 Zoo Dr., Los Angeles

(323) 644-4200 | lazoo.org/botanicalgardens/

There are more than 7,000 singular plants, representing more than 800 distinct species, at the L.A. Zoo, which seeks to educate the public about the importance of plants and the vital role they play in the lives of their animal residents. The zoo boasts native, succulent and edible gardens, as well as rare plants such as cycads, bald cypress and Chilean wine palm. Plants are organized according to their indigenous origins and then paired with their corresponding geographical regions within the zoo.

Open/Hours: Daily, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Entrance Fee: $20; seniors (62+), $17; children 2–12, $15; under 2, free. Ticket price includes admission to both the zoo and gardens.

Fun Fact: The zoo is a plant rescue center for illegally imported items confiscated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens

3500 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles

(323) 737-4055 | peacelabyrinth.org

A travertine marble labyrinth, a replica of the one found at France’s Chartres Cathedral, blends in with a small Asian-themed meditation garden at Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens, established in 2002 as a nonprofit spiritual center in L.A.’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. Self-described as “a spiritual oasis in the city,” the garden features 16 water fountains, a koi pond and several intimate seating areas, along with hundreds of trees such as bamboo, cypress, jacaranda, tipu and tabebuia; flowers such as jasmine, azalea, rose and birds of paradise; and flowering plants such as stephanotis, oakleaf hydrangea and pittosporum, among many others.

Open/Hours: Tuesday–Friday and Sunday, 12 p.m.–4 p.m.; fourth Saturday of the month: 12 p.m.–4 p.m.

Entrance Fee: None. Donations are welcome.

Fun Fact: For about 10 years beginning in the late 1930s, famed musical director and choreographer Busby Berkeley was the owner of the Guasti Villa, an L.A. Cultural Monument that serves as the gardens’ headquarters. It was later a home for unwed mothers and, after that, a boardinghouse for budding actresses.

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

1500 North College Ave., Claremont

(909) 625-8767 | rsabg.org

At 85 acres, the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is the largest botanic garden dedicated to the native plants of California. Tucked in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, it serves as an outdoor classroom to the students studying botany at Claremont Graduate University as well as the public, offering a variety of classes and workshops to the latter. (There are also programs and tours designed specifically for children in grades K-12.) The garden is comprised of three sections: Indian Mesa Hill (mature cultivars and wild species of native plants), the East Alluvial Gardens (where the Desert Garden, Coastal Dune and California Channel Island collections are found) and Plant Communities (home to four-needle pinyon, California flannel bushes and boojum trees).

Open/Hours: Daily, 8 a.m.–5 p.m.

Entrance Fee: $8; seniors (65+), $6; children 3–12, $4; under 3, free.

Fun Fact: In addition to those from California, plants found in southern Oregon, western Nevada and Baja California, Mexico — in botanical terms, the California Floristic Province — are all represented at Rancho Santa Ana.

Storrier Stearns Japanese Gardens

270 Arlington Dr., Pasadena

(626) 399-1721 | japanesegardenpasadena.com

The two-acre Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden, conceived for a private residence in the 1930s, is the last existing garden created by Kinzuchi Fujii, who designed and built Japanese landscapes throughout Southern California in the early decades of the 20th century. Visitors at this pond-style stroll garden will find four bridges, a formal teahouse and a traditional cedar-log “waiting house” amid its flora, two large ponds, a 25-foot hill with a cascading waterfall; spreading sycamores and old oaks shading a winding dry riverbed, stone lanterns and granite statuary. Guests can stop and take this all in at numerous gathering points and vistas throughout the garden, which also hosts a number of cultural events and educational programs throughout the year.

Open/Hours: Still a private residence, the garden is open to the public the last Sunday of each month; every Thursday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; and by reservation for private invitation-only events, including weddings.

Entrance Fee: $7.50 online, $10 at the gate.

Fun Fact: This is one of two Japanese gardens in California listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants

10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley

(818) 768-1802 | theodorepayne.org

Considered to be the father of the native-plant movement in California, Theodore Payne was a pioneering nurseryman, horticulturist and conservationist. His foundation was established in 1960 and today operates a retail nursery that has the region’s largest selection of California native plants, many of which are drought-tolerant and low maintenance. These include sun-loving perennials, chaparral shrubs, desert plants and riparian, as well as trees, grasses, vines and groundcover. The property also offers visitors an art gallery and a three-quarter-mile walking trail to Wildflower Hill, providing a grand vista of the San Fernando Valley from the summit. Classes and field trips for both children and adults are available through the foundation’s Education Center and outreach programs.

Open/Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Entrance Fee: None. Friendly dogs on leash are welcome.

Fun Fact: Members receive a 20-percent discount on the purchase of a Plant of the Month. The designee for March is the burgundy desert willow.

Wrigley Gardens

391 S. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena

(626) 449-4100 | visitpasadena.com/businesses/tournament-house/

Encompassing four-and-a-half acres, Wrigley Gardens surrounds the Italian Renaissance–style Wrigley Mansion, the headquarters of the Tournament of Roses Association, and showcases more than 1,500 types of roses, camellias and annuals. The Wrigley family, heirs to the chewing-gum empire, handed their private residence to the City of Pasadena in 1958 on the condition that it was to become the new home of the TOR.

Open/Hours: Free tours of the Tournament House are given each Thursday at

2 p.m. and 3 p.m. through the end of

August. Reservations aren’t required except for groups of 10 or more.

Entrance Fee: None

Fun Fact: William Warriner, named the country’s No. 1 rose breeder, developed the Tournament of Roses Rose, a pink variety resistant to black spots, white powder and rust, in honor of the TOR’s centennial.

Alternative Foods

Don’t believe everything you read when you’re served alternative facts about food.

There are so many things I feel like writing about this month. But I must continuously remind myself that this is a food column. Food. Not politics. Not social injustice. Not environmental activism. Not healthcare reform. Food.

And yet, if you are a loyal reader (I know at least three of you are), you have surely come across all of these topics in my column before. Sure, food is a critical element of life that must be made accessible to all. And yes, my industry is swollen with problems — pitiful wages, lack of decent healthcare, no medical leave, epidemic misogyny. We must stand up to all of this, and we do. There have been some great strides against this mess in the past few years. But I think the bigger point is that artists, culinary or otherwise, have the power to grab the attention of the masses, and with such power comes a duty. I’m not suggesting that I am a great artist. Just that I have a platform. So, I intend to use it.

With that in mind, I will use this food column to point out injustice when I see it. And sadly, I see a lot of it. We are being inundated with propaganda from all sides, so it behooves us to sift out what is real, and what is fake. But that isn’t always easy, because the fake stuff is often more appealing.

Velveeta, for instance, might be attractive to less-educated cheese connoisseurs. It is creamy and smooth and is utilized in many All-American dishes that are often described as “safe” and “comfortable.” And its bright orange color is certainly eye-catching. But it isn’t cheese. It’s “cheese food” and is so highly processed that it doesn’t require refrigeration, which is never good. The same is true with cheese in a can, and the stuff they extrude onto your nachos at the ballpark. But please, don’t be lured by its viscosity. It is evil. And while it is an unabashedly American product, it will not serve us well, nutritionally. It also makes us the laughingstock of the International Cheese Community.

Similarly, oat bran once promised to Make Your Diet Great Again. Every conceivable product jumped on the bandwagon, and Americans were led blindly into an all-out high-fiber war. Products without the oat bran label were deemed unhealthy and were shunned by consumers. What they didn’t mention is that adding oat bran to your Cap’n Crunch did not Drain the Swamp of other nutritionally corrupt effects. There was still a ton of sugar and preservatives. Sadly, we didn’t learn from this, and we repeatedly fall for the outrageous claims, whether they be in the guise of whole-grain, all-natural or sugar-free. A sugar-free, whole-grain Oreo will still make you fat. No slogan will ever change that.

Low-fat foods are also dangerous. Paranoid, reactionary organizations warned of the dangers of fat. They told us that it was bad, and that we should ban it from our diets. But there were consequences of such a ban. Anxiety over the dangers of fat led to a plethora of products containing processed fat. But they failed to warn us that, although these foods had reduced levels of cholesterol, they contained processed fat replacements which had their own problems and led to extreme weight gain and chronic disease. That there is evil in fat, it turns out, was an alternative fact. But alternative facts, no matter how ridiculous, can lead to panic and, as a result, those products that already felt marginalized by their fat content suffered even more. What we must realize is that fat is good for us. We need fat in our diet to keep our communities strong. Some of the most deliciously healthful foods are those with fat. Our country was built with the help of fat, and it is fat that makes America strong. Diversity in our diet is imperative for national health.

If our leaders can’t remember where we failed in the past, perhaps they should take a look at the history of grocers’ shelves.

Velveeta-Free, Low-Fiber, High-Fat Mac ’n’ Cheese 

Macaroni and cheese is generally considered to be a comfort food, a foodie term I find exceedingly annoying. Translated into plainspeak, comfort food is a fattening, high-carb, nap-inducing food that you generally turn to when it’s time to eat your feelings. FYI —I’m currently having a lot of feelings.

Ingredients

1 pound macaroni noodles (or try shells, bow-ties or ziti)

4 tablespoons butter, divided

½ yellow onion, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

½ teaspoon dried thyme

2 tablespoons flour

1½ cup milk

¾ pound Italian fontina, Gouda or Muenster cheese, grated

½ pound yellow or white cheddar cheese, grated

2 cups bread crumbs

¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1 tablespoon herbes de Provence, or dried thyme

Method

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the macaroni and stir, bringing it back to the boil. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the noodles are half-cooked. Drain noodles, cover with cold water to stop the cooking and set aside.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions, celery and thyme, and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are tender and translucent. Add the flour and stir until all is well coated, then cook another minute until the flour begins to brown. Add the milk slowly, stirring out any lumps as you go. Cook until the sauce is thick, then strain into a large baking dish, and discard the vegetables. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste, then add the cheese and stir until mostly melted.

3. Add the macaroni, and stir until well coated. Mix the breadcrumbs with Parmesan and herbes. Spread the mac evenly in baking dish and top with crumbs. Dot the top with remaining butter, then bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes.


Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

BACK TO SCHOOL

went back to school last week. Not for classes and not for any kind of reunion (the reunion part may come later). I returned to Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy for the first time since I left, more years ago than I care to remember, because I received a mysterious phone message from a Sister Giulii (pronounced “Julie”). I called the number; the voice on the other end of the line was husky and casual and, I thought, entirely unclerical. My memories of the Flintridge sisters’ voices were full of crisp pronunciations and formal deliveries. Sister Giulii sounded like a girlfriend I hadn’t seen in a while. Which is pretty much what she turned out to be: a Flintridge classmate appearing out of the fog of our combined academic past. She’d tracked me down after reading one of my Arroyo columns about Flintridge, and she’d called to invite me to drive up to our old school together. She’d pick me up in her car, she said.

Say what? A Dominican nun with a car? I wondered how she’d manage to handle the wheel with all the long skirts, coifs, veils and capacious sleeves of her habit. And what kind of car would she drive?

The car turned out to be a Toyota Corolla. White. Clean, with a small clutch of papers on the passenger-side floor. These were brushed casually to the side so I’d have more leg room. This was the Giulii I’d known all those years ago, all right. The same spark of humor was there in her dark eyes. Her mouth still looked as if she might laugh at any moment. She was still pretty. Her thick dark curls were cropped short and, while the hair had remained thick, it had gone white. But she was not wearing a habit. Sister Giulii had on jeans and a gray T-shirt embossed across the front with the crest of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. I could not have been more surprised if she had been wearing a sarong.

We drove to La Cañada, talking about classmates who had entered the order. One girl, nicknamed Tyke, was the wildest student in our class, the one who found a way to smoke without being caught (and expelled), the one who managed to smuggle up a bottle of mouthwash laced with vodka, left school in the 10th grade and entered a Carmelite novitiate. Giullii told me Tyke left the Carmelites (the most enclosed of orders) and reentered the world after a few years. We talked about the suspense, during summer holidays, of waiting for the handsomely engraved card that invited you back for another year. If you did not receive that card, you weren’t welcome to return; it wasn’t like being expelled, but not being invited back to Flintridge would have made it difficult to be accepted at another private school. We traveled up St. Katherine Drive (the same route my mother and I had taken after weekends and holidays at home) until we reached the top. And there was the school, a sprawl of red-tile-roofed white buildings and lush landscaping with a rustic, bougainvillea-draped bridge that crossed over the drive to a compound of four-room cottages reserved for upperclassmen. I remembered how excited I was when, as a junior, I got to live in one of the cottages; all Flintridge students are boarders, and being allowed a space in a cottage felt as grown-up as scarlet lipstick and My Sin perfume.

The school, which was once the Flintridge Hotel (donated to the Catholic Church in the ’20s by its owner), looked the same as we walked up the flight of stone stairs to the entrance. The old hotel lobby still had the check-in desk where students signed in after weekends at home and where all incoming calls were screened. The big room off the lobby — where school plays, the junior and senior proms and the ceremonial senior ring ceremony were held — hadn’t changed, with the exception of a large lectern at the center of the room, facing a number of chairs. Sister Giulli explained that this was now the chapel. I was rather disappointed: My memory of the original chapel with its beautiful altar and rows of benches seemed much more the real deal to me. But the life-size statues of the Madonna holding the infant Jesus and Saint Francis with a small dog at his side were just as I remembered. The long hallway leading to the students’ rooms was unchanged. The Green Room, where we gathered after dinner for bridge games and dancing to donated record albums, was the same. But now it’s painted white and there is a very big flat-screen TV attached to one wall. I guess there’s not much dancing there now, or games of bridge and hearts. But just outside the room’s French doors, the patio with its round stone fountain was so familiar I half expected to see Sister Benigna bringing out the basket of sweet pastries she referred to as “afternoon lunch.”

The highlight of the day was meeting Sister Carolyn McCormack, the president of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. Sister Carolyn greeted me with the warmest of hugs and the kind of smile one doesn’t see often: wide and true and welcoming. She was wearing a habit, and I noticed the differences from those my teachers wore when I was a student. The new habits are shorter and the coif and veil are less constricting. The black cotton stockings and low-heeled shoes are unchanged, however.

Sister Carolyn, who was named Educator of the Year by the La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce in January, is apple-cheeked, with deeply intelligent eyes that hold an extra push of blue. Those eyes see you as you are, and when she leans in to speak she has the gift of making you feel as if you’re the only person in the room. She invited me to return to Flintridge, even to speak to any students interested in journalism. We met in the dining room, called the refectory when I was a student there. The big room is not much changed — the ceiling is as high and the candled chandeliers are still in place, but the white-clothed tables for eight have been replaced by round vinyl-topped tables bearing the Flintridge crest. And now, instead of meals served by the sisters, there are long tables with a choice of meals for self-service. I didn’t meet any students that day, but I saw a couple of girls studying at the other end of the dining room. The dark blue uniforms we wore when I was a Flintridge student have been replaced with red blazers and pleated skirts. Way more attractive.

It was a great day for me, and if it’s true you can’t go home again, you can most assuredly go back to school.

Cool Down

Shady gardens are tricky but rewarding.

Every summer there are days when the heat is sinister — hot outside, hot inside. The A/C is on but my ’20s Spanish home is still 84 degrees. I pad back and forth, feeling like a snow leopard in an Arizona zoo. I eye my garden and pine for shade.

Trees. I need more trees.

“Trees are the most beneficial plants in our urban landscape,” says landscape architect and Cal Poly Pomona professor emeritus Bob Perry, conveniently supporting my obsession. Trees not only shade our homes, he points out, they also sequester carbon from the atmosphere “and transpire their moisture, which [reduces] air temperature and direct-sun heat load on our houses.”

With temperatures rising and Southern California vulnerable to drought (despite recent rain), cultivating shade just makes sense. Sure, gardening in the shade can be tricky, but with a little know-how, you can cultivate spots that are cool, lovely and soothing.

Over the 13 years I’ve lived in San Gabriel, I’ve added shade to my lot: a native Catalina cherry, some gorgeous red-barked manzanitas, a feijoa (pineapple guava tree). But as the trees have grown, the shadows have deepened and I’ve had to reexamine what will thrive.

To state the obvious: Plants need sun to photosynthesize and grow. That makes deeply shady areas, including the north side of structures, a challenge for gardeners. For these full-shade spots, Perry recommends understory plants from temperate or subtropical climates—flora that evolved to grow beneath a thick tree canopy. That includes the Japanese aucuba (Aucuba japonica), an evergreen shrub with variegated leaves; various maples, aspidistras and philodendrons (both commonly sold as indoor plants) and some species of Berberis, such as Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) and creeping barberry (Berberis repens).

Many of these plants need year-round water to look their best, so I prefer plants from Mediterranean climates — California, Chile, South Africa, Australia and the Mediterranean basin. Perry recommends these as well. “It’s a limited palette, but dry shade is as tough as it gets,” he says. “When you talk about dry shade, you are dealing with sort of a double negative.”

Las Pilitas, a native plant nursery near San Luis Obispo, offers an exhaustive list of California flora for full and dry shade on its website (laspilitas.com), with the caveat that many might prefer partial shade. Among the more popular plants on the list are various species and cultivars of coffeeberry, monkey flower, Heuchera, currants (Ribes indecorum and Ribes sanguineum glutinosum) and hummingbird sage.

All of these natives have thrived in shady spots in my garden. On the north side of my home, along a path between the house and a perimeter wall, I converted a dank zone of calla lilies and lawn into a thicket of (mainly) natives. The new plants mostly thrived and didn’t need as much water, but I discovered that each niche had its own microclimate. Several patches turned out to be sunnier than I thought, affording me a wider range of plants.

Jill Morganelli, horticultural supervisor for the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, recommends studying your shade before you plant. “Maybe keep a little journal,” she says. “Go in the morning and see what the sun is, go out there in the afternoon, and then you also have to do that at different times of the year.” 

My thicket matured, providing an attractive privacy screen, but some of the plants, including a nectarine tree, languished as others grew up around them. At the northwest corner of the house, a manzanita caught late-afternoon sun in summer.  It grew slowly but steadily, eventually shading out a coffeeberry shrub.

“Most trees need full sun,” says Morganelli, “and when you start getting into shade and growing against buildings, there’s no air flow, so molds and root rot can really intensify.” She adds that people tend to overwater shady areas, leaving plants vulnerable to disease. 

I’m stingy with water, so my biggest problem is determining whether aggrieved plants have taken too much umbrage or are in need of a drink.

Morganelli strolls among ferns at the Arboretum in Arcadia. She points out other shade-tolerant plants: orange-flowered Clivia, an evergreen, bulb-like (rhizomatous) plant from southern Africa; Peruvian lily (Alstromeria); and shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana), a shrub with blooms resembling crustaceans.

Because shady areas are darker, Morganelli says, variegated and white-flowered plants, including the lighter azaleas, look especially pretty. “At night it literally illuminates your garden,” she says.

On hot days, one of Morganelli’s favorite Arboretum roosts is a bench under a stout coast live oak. ”Don’t try to plant magnificent gardens under oaks,” she advises. “It’s just not going to work.” Indeed, because of the deep shade and chemicals (tannins) this tree exudes to inhibit other plants, nothing is growing under it. “But look at the glorious shade,” Morganelli says.

The Arboretum’s Engelmann oak grove is a refuge for L.A. County’s largest remaining congregation of these rare native trees. I asked Jim Henrich, the Arboretum’s curator of living collections, to meet me there to discuss gardening around oaks.

The Engelmanns slant west in unison, a carpet of weeds at their feet. Henrich hopes to replace the weeds with a few sparsely planted natives, perhaps evergreen currant and bunch grass — but around the periphery. “The best thing of all is not to plant under the tree,” he says, “and just allow natural leaf-litter accumulation. It’s the best mulch.” California oaks are adapted to dry summers. New plantings will need more frequent summer water, which can leave oaks vulnerable to fungus, especially if moisture concentrates near the trunk. (One exception: In the first few years, young oaks benefit from regular water.) For trees generally, it’s best to water at the dripline — the zone under the outer circumference of the branches.

“If you have to plant under the tree, you should probably stay at least 15 feet away from the trunk,” Henrich says, adding that you’ll need to select plants that survive on less frequent but longer (deeper) watering. To avoid excessive root disturbance, keep plantings sparse. It’s good advice for working around any kind of tree.

Perry recommends installing a drip irrigation system at a tree’s dripline. “Cover it with mulch and strategically plant,” he says. “Put an emphasis on plants that spread and sprawl.” Cluster things, he says, so instead of a carpet, you’ll have mulch and “drifts and groupings and islands” of plants.

First and foremost, water the trees. “Our big trees, even coast live oaks, are not necessarily water-thrifty plants,” says Perry. “They have a big surface area to cool.” So prioritize: allow portions of your yard to be drier, rely less on lawn and other thirsty plants. That way, says Perry, “collectively you’re using less water because you are focusing it strategically on the plants that really do the good things for our environment.”

Exactly. Trees. Big shady trees.

Presidents’ Day Revised

Get to know a little more about the office we celebrate on Feb. 20.

February is traditionally a time when we wax patriotic and remember the great leaders of our past. This year, that tradition is more important than ever. If nothing else, we should remind ourselves that, as a country, we have endured, despite our electoral blunders.

The third Monday in February is a federal and state holiday; in California, it’s called Presidents’ Day. Our state leaders agreed it was better to have one all-encompassing day than to celebrate Lincoln on the 12th and then Washington about a week later on the 22nd. I am sure this was economically motivated to keep people at their desks, but the joke’s on them — because many institutions still take off the traditional birthdays, in addition to the newer Presidents’ Day. California still lists both birthdays on calendars, but state employees no longer get both days off as paid holidays. California — keepin’ it classy and ambiguous.

How you spend your Presidents’ Day holiday is entirely up to you. I fully expect the majority of Californians to turn it into a long weekend of skiing or theme-parking. But may I suggest that, in this tumultuous time, you spend this Presidents’ Day getting in touch with some of our past leaders. If you do, I think you may find that our current situation, though dire, is not without precedent.

Historically, our country has often elected the famous over the populist. And it is not unusual for our choices to perform less illustriously than promised. George Washington, of course, was beloved by the masses as a warrior and gentleman farmer, though the farming part was really just theoretical until his retirement, at which point he still left the actual labor to his hundreds of slaves. Not exactly how we like to celebrate him. We prefer to make up legends about honor and cherry tree preservation.

Jefferson was well known for his Francophile ways and his bouffant wig. And while he penned our most cherished egalitarian document, he personally preferred not to mingle with the common folk. He has been celebrated as a proponent of ending the importation of slaves, but those views were based not on his desire to end slavery, but rather to increase the value of his in-house slave-breeding program.

Lincoln is often considered our greatest president. But while the Great Emancipator despised slavery, he was unwilling to do much about it until it became clear that emancipation would give him leverage against the Confederacy, by eliminating its labor force. Also, he condescendingly referred to Sojourner Truth as “Aunty,” a catch-all name for household servants. He is also known to have referred to slaves in general as “Cuffie” — a demeaning variation on the West African name Kofi. Not cool, Uncle Abe. Not cool.

Andrew Jackson was super-popular after defeating the British at New Orleans during the War of 1812. He was the first to ride mistrust of the political establishment to victory, promising to directly represent the common man. But once in office his lavish banquets earned him the nickname “King Andrew.” He also ushered in the spoils system of political patronage (jobs in return for political support), effectively killing civil service as it had been known. Not exactly a step toward good government. Also, Old Hickory killed a guy in a duel, threatened to kill many others and initiated the Trail of Tears, the forced relocations of thousands of Native Americans in the Southeast. So much for the Man of the People.

In the election of 1876, New York’s Democratic governor, Samuel J. Tilden, beat Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote by nearly 300,000. But contested Electoral College votes in several states kept the results in dispute well into January. (Sound familiar?) Congress set up an Electoral Commission, which determined the Electoral College count at 187-186 — in favor of Hayes. The victor was, for the remainder of his term, known as “His Fraudulency.”

Warren G. Harding got the job because the Republican Party thought he looked presidential. Unfortunately, his looks were the only presidential thing about him. His oratory skills were subpar, and his speeches were described as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” (Again — sound familiar?) In addition to his communication deficit, he was known for tawdry extramarital affairs, illegitimate children and the Teapot Dome scandal, in which the interior secretary received payment for secretly and exclusively leasing federal oil reserves to the Mammoth Oil Company. And he had the worst nickname ever — “Wobbly Warren.”

So, my fellow Americans, the White House has a long history of arrogant, aggressive, morally confused inhabitants. Luckily, we have always been able to balance it with sobriety, discipline and restraint, though not necessarily in the same administration. I have every expectation that we will come out on the other end a stronger, smarter nation.

Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

Sour Grapes Salad

Here’s a suggestion for the inaugural party I am sure you are totally having

Ingredients

1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon celery seed

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 pound seedless grapes (green and red, mixed if possible), halved

1 Fuji apple, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

½ red onion, sliced

1 large cooked chicken breast, shredded

1 cup walnut halves, roughly chopped

½ cup golden raisins

Method

In a large bowl combine sour cream, lemon zest and juice, celery seed, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl, and toss to evenly coat. Adjust seasoning if needed. Serve on a bed of lettuce leaves — and with a positive attitude.

Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.