Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Ragfield Family Christmas Tree

I was actually being sarcastic when I suggested to Rob that we go pick up a Christmas tree on our tandem bike. But he called my bluff and took me up on it.

The whole endeavor was made more interesting because when we woke up this morning, the world of Urbana was covered in snow. Finally this afternoon we rode Big Red through the slush over to the Custard Cup parking lot, which is where they sell Christmas trees every year. It wasn’t actually too difficult to pick one out, given that there were only a few trees in our price range.

The day after Thanksgiving, the Custard Cup parking lot transforms into a Christmas tree lot.

We bought the tree and Rob used bungee cords to secure it to the make-shift trailer he had constructed. Then we headed for home. It probably wasn’t the safest ride we’ve ever done. By this time, it was after 4:30 and becoming dark, it was sleeting a little bit, and with a 7-foot tree strapped to the back of the bike, we couldn’t see if there were any cars behind us. It was kind of scary every time we had to turn a corner or come to a stop. But luckily we only had about 2.5 miles to go, and we made it home just fine. I was a little disappointed not to have a photo or video of the adventure. I’d been hoping to stage a victory lap around our block so we could get some photos, but by the time we made it back, it was getting dark and I was convinced that all my fingers and toes were frostbitten.

I can only assume that this will now become a Ragfield Tradition. Hopefully next year we’ll ride over to pick out our tree before the first snow of the season.

A Very Vegan Thanksgiving

Rob and I have had 4 Thanksgivings (well 1 of them was actually a birthday party) in the past 4 days. When I was little, I remember Thanksgiving being one meal, on one day, at my great aunts’ house. Times have changed I guess.

Several months ago when I decided to stop dallying around and become a vegan for real, the one thing that gave me pause was what I would do at family holiday gatherings. I decided I’d cross that bridge when I came to it, and this Thanksgiving it was finally time. The end result? Well, I’m not going to be writing a Vegan Holiday Survival Guide, but I might go looking to see if someone else has written one that I can read up on before Christmas.

The festivities began on Wednesday night, when we celebrated niece Vivian’s first birthday and continued on Thursday with Thanksgiving dinner with Rob’s family. To these events, I brought pumpkin chipotle hummus (loosely based off of this recipe) and a sub-par minestrone soup that somehow managed not to re-heat all the way through before dinner, so I ended up eating it luke warm. I also brought some pumpkin spice cookies so that I wouldn’t feel too left out when everybody was eating Vivian’s cake and pumpkin pie. It ended up that I was the only person who ate any of these things (well, Rob politely had some minestrone soup).

What is this, finger paint?

Vivian's birthday cake

Nephew Caleb invented this fabulous game in which I got to sit on the couch while he stood guard for approaching "dinosaurs." Whenever he saw a dinosaur, he would call for me to put up my Magic Dinosaur Shield (a pillow), while he chased away the offending beast. Caleb and I both could have played this game for hours. The best thing about this game was that I got to sit in one place the whole time.

On Thursday night after the Scho Thankgsiving, we drove a very boring 4-1/2 hours up to my sister’s place and arrived late at night. Since we didn’t stop back at home, I traveled with all my various vegan dishes and accoutrements. My sister had made us a fabulous vegetarian chili and also some vegan brownies that are single-handedly responsible for my skinny jeans not fitting anymore. It was totally worth it though.

Nephew Logan playing

Melissa, Rob, & Logan
Rob and Meli with Logan

Michelle, Mark, & Logan
Michelle and Mark with Logan

The Raguet family
Meli's fam

We spent the day on Friday at my sister’s, hanging out with my family and playing with nephew Logan. I also whipped up another batch of Peanut-Butter Noodles (which I keep calling “Thai Peanut Noodles” for some reason) for our 4th and final Thanksgiving with Rob’s family the next day. We left my sister’s at 6:30am in the bitter cold on Saturday morning and drove like hell to get there by noon. The car was loaded down with the peanut noodles, pumpkin chipotle hummus, and pumpkin spice cookies. I felt pretty terrible and was really hungry when we finally arrived. When it was time for dinner, I put the peanut noodles in the microwave, but they didn’t get heated all the way through. I sat down with a plate of ice-cold noodles, which were actually pretty gross. If I were at home, I would have just popped my plate back in the microwave, but we were eating off of fine china, so I just made do.

I think what made this Thanksgiving so difficult was that we went so many places and there were so many different family dinners that I had to bring something to. Considering all the work I went to and how it turned out, I might as well have just packed myself a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich instead of trying unsuccessfully to create a delicious dish that other people weren’t going to eat anyway (except for a few brave or unknowing souls tried my pumpkin chipotle hummus and ended up gagging and writhing on the floor).

Don't tell Cousin Dan, but its pretty obvious that little Brody (14 months) is my favorite Cousin-in-Law. Whenever I'm around Brody, I remind myself of the female howler monkeys who would steal other females' babies to hold them and play with them.

Caleb and Vivian with their momma and Santy Claus. At just 12 months, Vivian is a striding biped. I am truly impressed with her locomotor abilities.

The Bassetts
Rob's family, which you may notice is more numerous than mine.

At any rate, I guess I have to regroup, and get ready to tackle Christmas. If there are any vegans out there who happen to have stumbled on this blog, please, please send your holiday survival tips my way.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

You're a vegan? What do you eat?

I’m thinking of starting a new segment on the blog called “You’re a vegan? What do you eat?!” This is for a couple of reasons. First, I get this question frequently, and hopefully such posts will provide an answer to any who are concerned. Second, many of the things that I eat are so lovely that I take pictures of them.

We’ll start off this segment with a dessert I made recently (I think it was great-aunt Julia who always said you should eat dessert first). Its called Gingered Cranberry Pear Cobbler. It actually ended up being a ton of work, and the ingredients were kind of expensive. It takes 8 pears. Eight! And have you priced pears lately? They aren’t cheap. The cranberries were on sale though, so maybe that helped a little. The original recipe calls for sour cream, which I substituted with Tofutti Vegan Better Than Sour Cream.

Making this dessert was pretty labor-intensive. It took me a long time to peel and slice all those pears, and then making the crust turned out to be a little bit more work than I’d hoped for. When I started out making the dessert, I hadn’t realized there would be kneading, rising, and rolling involved. It wasn’t too bad though, it just dirtied a lot of dishes. The final product was gorgeous, especially when I put it into the beautiful baking dish that my mother-in-law gave me last year for Christmas.

The verdict on this dessert: the filling was definitely tart alright. The recipe only called for ¾ cup of brown sugar, but I think adding some white sugar would probably help. I made this dessert when we had a couple of friends over for dinner, and they both told me that it was great. Rob tried some of it, which I definitely appreciate, since he generally avoids all desserts unless they come in brownie form. (He claims this is the first time he has ever eaten “cobbler,” but I find it hard to believe he’s lived 30 years and never had any of his Grandma B’s widely acclaimed cherry cobbler). But in the end, this dessert was not my favorite. We ate less than half of it and I finally wrapped it up and put it in the freezer, which I think of as Food Purgatory. I don’t know if cobbler is something that freezes well, but after going to so much work, I couldn’t simply throw it out. In sum, it was pretty good, but I’ve realized that if I’m going to put that much effort into something, it ought to be chocolate.

Moving on. For dinner tonight, I made Peanut-Butter Noodles from the Vegan A Go-Go website. They were A-MAZING!! All I can say is that Vegan A Go-Go rocks! This recipe was so easy to make, and it was seriously one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. I used low-sodium soy sauce and low-sodium vegetable broth for the sauce and it was still pretty salty. I’m not sure what “chili paste” is, but I had some “chili garlic sauce” and used that instead. I also chopped up some carrots and broccoli, steamed them, and added that to the final mix. The whole thing turned out so good that I’ve decided to bring it to one of the Thanksgivings that Rob and I are attending this week (we’re going to several celebrations in multiple states). Thanks for the great recipe, Vegan A Go-Go!

Fabulous Peanut Noodles. Showcasing Auntie's old Corell dishes again.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Rob and I have been dog-sitting a very sleepy puppy* all weekend.

*Note: at ~8 pounds, Ravage is full grown.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Save the Red Herring

The Red Herring is a non-profit lunch-only vegan restaurant that is literally across the street from the Anthropology Department. You would think because 1) it is so close to where I work –and- 2) I’ve been a vegetarian and/or vegan for the past 11+ years, that I would be eating lunch there all the time. But not so much really. Before the last week, I’d probably only eaten there 3 or 4 times. This is because I’ve never been much of a lunch person, but that is probably beyond the scope of this blog.

At any rate, I found out recently that the Red Herring is in financial distress and in imminent danger of closing forever. In a grass roots effort to keep their doors open, they’ve been trying to get everybody and anybody to come in and buy lunch. I guess they normally serve maybe 50 people a day, and they need to drastically increase that number in order to make enough money to buy the supplies to stay open another week. (Keeping in mind that the people who work there are volunteers and do not actually get paid).

Rob and I met for lunch there last Friday, and it was a little chaotic. There were a lot of people in there, and you could tell that the staff was not used to this kind of business. This week, I scored some office space in the department, so I’ve been working from campus and have been back to the Red Herring twice to pick up a sandwich to go. Both times there have again been tons of people ordering lunch. So much, in fact, that today I waited in line for 30 minutes before even placing my order. Just as I got up to the counter, they announced that they were out of everything on the menu, except the Baked Tofu Sandwich—which was actually the thing I wanted anyway, so that was fine by me.

At any rate, I really, sincerely hope that the Red Herring doesn’t have to close down. Its been open for the past 30 years, and I guess its the only totally vegan restaurant in town. Restaurants normally stress me out, because I usually have to ask about a billion questions to determine what, if anything, is vegan and even then I’m never quite sure. So it is really nice to have this restaurant that is all vegan, and I can order anything off the menu (provided that they don’t run out). If you live in the Champaign-Urbana area, please drop by the Red Herring for lunch in the next couple of days to help support a local business. Its in the basement of the Channing Murray Foundation, at the corner of Mathews and Oregon. The Channing Murray is some kind of Unitarian church, but I don't think that the restaurant is affiliated with the church. Anyway, the food is amazing, and I’m not just saying that because I’m vegan. SL took us there for a Dissertation Lunch one time—even he enjoyed it, and he’s a total carnivore.

This is a photo of the building that the Red Herring is in. The Anthropology Department is the pink brick building in the background.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Stuck in an infinite loop

I’ve never been a good sleeper. Even when I was a little kid, I remember being stressed out and having trouble sleeping. When I was a sophomore in college, I think I slept like 2 hours the entire year and it almost drove me crazy. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be one of those people who could fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow and then be able to stay asleep through anything.

Tonight (this morning?) is typical for me. I went to bed around 11pm (a fairly reasonable hour) but woke up at 2:30. Done. Wide awake. Ready for breakfast. Won’t the sun come up already? The longer I was awake, the more I became stuck in an infinite loop. Ten billion things were going through my head with each passing second. I should go to the grocery store in the morning and get more soymilk. I should think of something vegan to take to M and S’s party on Thursday so that I can have something to eat. I should figure what in the world I am going to make for the impending tri-state Thanksgiving Odyssey and how I am going to transport it all. I should do something with that small yet unnerving pile of things I just noticed under the bed (that has probably been there since we moved in). I should get up and try to work on my Fallback Foods paper some more. I should, in general, do Pilates or yoga.

I finally gave up trying to go back to sleep and thought maybe I’d get up and do some work. When I opened my computer, there it was—an email from SL with his long awaited comments on 2 (of the 6) dissertation chapters I’ve sent him. What better way to be greeted at 4 in the morning. I considered not opening the message, but then decided that the not-knowing would be worse than just jumping right in and seeing what he had to say. Besides, its not like I was getting back to sleep anyway.

Much to my surprise, it wasn’t bad. He seemed to like it, or at least not find any major logical errors. Most of his comments were about my grammar. I do feel that one area where SL and I definitely disagree is grammar. My hellish year in 8th grade advanced English was practically like getting a PhD in grammar (needless to say, Amy will know what I mean), so I feel that I know a thing or two. It seems like SL had a similarly traumatic experience in his youth, but with a teacher who taught slightly different grammatical principles. And maybe I do like to push the envelope a bit. For instance, I am quite fond of beginning sentences with introductory clauses (such as this one). SL has tried to break me of this habit for years. I also like to split infinitives, and I think that—as long as its used sparingly—there is nothing wrong with the passive voice.

Even though SL’s comments were not catastrophic (there’s an introductory clause again), I’m still too wound up to go back to sleep. Maybe when I go to the store to pick up that soymilk, I should also get some chamomile tea.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Green Party

It was a short night last night. Rob and I were up late celebrating Obama’s victory (or Who-bama, as Little Mr. E calls him). In my concept of a perfect world, the Green Party candidate (Cynthia McKinney) would have won, but in the real world, this is a dream come true. After listening to President Obama's victory speech I was exhausted, but I was too wound up to sleep. It didn’t help matters any when the alarm went off at 4:40am this morning. Rob had some kind of conference in Chicago today, and he had to be there by 8.

Left on my own for dinner tonight, I made my new favorite thing. A while ago, I found a really fabulous recipe for greens on an amazing website called Vegan-A-Go-Go, and I just can’t get enough of it. I made these greens to go with dinner a few days ago, and even though Rob ate it, he did not share my enthusiasm. “They’re okay, I guess,” is what he said. So even though its a bit lonely with Rob not here for dinner, I contented myself by having a Green Party. The first time I made this dish, I used kale and spinach. This time, I used kale and mustard greens, and I think I liked my first batch better. But seriously, this is good stuff.

This is an answer to the horrified question: "You're a vegan? What do you eat?!"

Rob was driving through Kankakee about an hour ago, so he should be home any minute. And I’ve got to go, to see Jon Stewart’s take on the election.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

How I qualified for Boston without even trying

Okay, I guess I should say that I did actually try for it, I just didn’t plan for it. And here’s a warning: this post is ridiculously long and may contain both feminist ideology and mild profanity.

So the Boston Marathon is like, the holy grail of marathons. I guess it was the first marathon ever held in the US, so its steeped in history. It holds a special place in my feminist heart too. Women used to be prohibited from running marathons, you know, because we’re supposed to be barefoot and pregnant all the time. In 1966, a woman named Roberta Gibb ran the Boston Marathon as a “bandit” (without really registering for it, because it wasn’t allowed), and then there’s a really famous story about a woman named Katherine Switzer, who ran the Boston Marathon in 1967 and race officials literally tried to push her off the course. Because she was a woman. It was unseemly. Get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich. But she persevered, I guess, and somehow managed to finish even though being physically assaulted on the course. In 1972, women were officially allowed to run in the Boston Marathon for the first time. When you think about it, that really wasn’t all that long ago.

The other thing about Boston is that you have to qualify for it by running a specified qualifying time for your age and sex bracket. For me, this is 3 hours and 40 minutes. My previous best marathon (in 2005) was 3:47:39. My most recent marathon (May 2008) was something in the neighborhood of 3:50. For me, Boston wasn’t even something I considered reaching for. In fact, I never really considered attempting to qualify for it. Afterall, its at a bad time of year for someone in academia (finals time—late April), plus its always on a Monday. A lot of people run marathons with dreams of BQ’ing (Boston Qualifying) as we call it, but honestly, the thought never crossed my mind. I run just to run.

Which is why I signed up for the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon today. It seemed like it would be a good race, plus Rob and I have a lot of friends and family in the area who we’d get a chance to see. I trained pretty hard—around 2 months of nearly 40 miles per week, plus a peak week when I managed to run just over 50 miles. And all that training went really, peculiarly well. No injuries, illnesses or ailments. Despite the high mileage, I took it easy, always running at a slow pace. I never did “speed workouts” and rarely, if ever, even took a watch with me while I ran. As we headed over to Indianapolis yesterday, I reviewed my 3:45 pace band, hoping that this would be the race when I’d finally get there. I’ve probably printed out a 3:45 pace band for every previous marathon, and always ended up ripping it off my arm in anger at some point during the race, as I realized I’d fallen unattainably behind.

We arrived at AK and BY’s house in Indianapolis last night, which incidentally was Halloween. Little Miss C was a pink princess (complete with tiara) and Little Mr E was a robot. Adorable. AK had fixed us a lovely pasta dinner, and we had all the creature comforts of being at home, or being at the home of someone who is your family. We went to bed at a fairly reasonable hour and then woke up bright and early on race morning. (Well, dark and early actually).

I knew that this marathon had the potential to be either the best or worst one I’ve ever done. I’d trained better (at least, at higher mileage) than any of my previous 7, so I had that going for me. But I’d been feeling downright terrible the whole week before the race—only able to sleep a few hours each night, and an upset stomach that made me wonder if I’d even make the start line. When the alarm went off this morning, I still did not feel too great, and I actually had a minor freak-out that I was even attempting to run 26.2 miles.

But that’s what I’d come here for. So we went to the start line. It was freezing. I’d solicited the advice of Rob and BY and consulted and finally opted to wear shorts and a t-shirt. Unpleasant standing in the dark at the start when the temperature is in the 40’s. But welcome once the sun came up and it gradually warmed to the 60’s.

The start was super-congested. There were so many people that after the gun went off, it took me more than a minute to even get to the start line. Once I actually crossed the start, I still was just walking because it was so congested. The whole first mile was slow, but I thought that was probably a good thing. During my last several marathons, I’ve started out way too fast and ended up paying for it dearly at the end (or middle!) when I run out of energy. My GPS wasn’t working right (this is the last time I ever will run with the aging Garmin ForeRunner 201!), so I had to just rely on the mile markers along the course. At mile 1, my time was 9:20. Yikes. I’d wanted to start off slow, but not that slow! The pace per mile for a 3:45 marathon is 8:35.

While freezing at the start, I had met up with a woman named Denise who also wanted to run 3:45. We resolved to stay together as long as we could, and when we saw how much our pace was lagging, we picked it up. I think we over-compensated. We started running 8:20’s or below, and by at least 4 miles in, we were back on pace for 3:45. We didn’t slow down though. In fact, we kept speeding up. By mile 11, we were about 2 minutes ahead of schedule. Denise was pumped. But I knew, from so many previous experiences, that this did not bode well.

I knew that Rob, AK, BY, and the kids were planning on being at a corner around mile 11.5, so I’d really been looking forward to seeing them there. When I got there, much to my surprise, there were some additions to my cheering section. Rob’s aunt and uncle and baby cousin were there, and Rob’s parents were too! It was like the whole corner erupted in huge: “Go, Melissa!” cheers. I felt like an honest-to-goodness celebrity. I felt like a million bucks, and it meant the world to me. This powered me to run an 8:16 for my next mile. By around mile 14, I had cruised ahead of Denise. I knew I should pull it back, but I just couldn’t. I kept hammering out 8:16’s, 8:12’s, and so on. Pretty soon I was 3 minutes and 30 seconds ahead of pace. I told myself, okay Melissa, keep your cool. If you feel good at mile 20, you can go for it. But don’t do anything stupid before you get that far.

Denise, wherever you are, it was great running with you!

Surprise!! The whole gang was there!

Around mile 16, I saw Rob and our friends again. I was so far ahead of schedule that Rob’s family hadn’t made it to that point yet. I hollered for Rob to bring me the “emergency stash” of pretzels I’d had him hold for me. He ran them over to me, and it was a lifesaver. I’d brought a couple of carbohydrate gel packs with me, but, my body was having none of that. I wanted salt. And lots of it.

Seeing my cheering squad and having the pretzels gave me even more speed. Pretty soon, I realized something. Boston was within my reach. My BQ time is 3:40, but they accept anything under 3:40:59. So all I had to do was be 4 minutes and 1 second under my original goal pace. And I was already over 4 minutes ahead. And I felt great. So I picked it up even more, running close to 8 minute pace. Pretty soon I was 5 minutes up. Still tenuous, but getting close to safe. I saw Rob a couple miles later and I told him, “I might qualify for Boston.” Suddenly I wished I hadn’t said that outloud. I didn’t want to jinx it.

"My quads will destroy you"

By mile 20, I was nearly 6 minutes ahead of 3:45 pace. And I was running sub-8 minute miles. I think mile 22 was 7:40, though its hard to say for sure with my malfunctioning GPS. It was such a weird, almost out of body experience. It was like I was in a war zone or something. All around me, people were going down, shrieking in pain as they clutched throbbing legs and fell to the ground. And here I was, fleetly picking my way through the fallen masses, practically skimming through the air.

By mile 23 I was almost 7 minutes up, and I realized I could slow down significantly and still make it. By mile 24, I was so ready for this to be over. At mile 25, I saw Rob and BY again on their bikes. Even though I had just puked a little bit in my mouth, their exuberant cheering bolstered me onward, and I ran a 7:56 mile. At mile 26, I had only 2 tenths left to go, and I ran like hell. I could see the finishing line and I started sobbing hysterically. The announcer called my name as I ran across the finishing mat, in something like 3:37:20 (chip time). I started screaming, “I JUST QUALIFIED FOR BOSTON!! I JUST QUALIFED FOR BOSTON!!” A man put a medal around my neck and wrapped a mylar blanket around me. “I just qualified for Boston!” I sobbed, and he held my hand for a minute and told me congratulations.

I couldn’t eat or drink or do anything other than sort of pant hysterically. I wandered aimlessly through the finishing area, sidestepping people who were being put on stretchers and lifted onto ambulances, probably still hoarsely whispering, “I just qualified for Boston.” I barely managed to get it under control by the time Rob and BY found me in the crowd. Eventually, we walked back to the car and went to AK and BY’s house, where I had a warm shower and a delicious vegan lunch.

My head is still sort of reeling from all of this. I normally take a nap after a marathon, but this time I am way too excited. Things couldn’t have gone better if I’d planned it. The weather was ideal. The course was nearly perfectly flat. I also had a cheering section of friends and family who helped me keep the crazies at bay. If I’d gone into this with the hope of BQ’ing, I would have inevitably been stressed out and enjoyed the whole experience much less. The way it happened was like a nice surprise—a really nice surprise.

The only thing left to do is go to Boston, I guess. The thing is, I’m not sure that I’m even going to. Its just nice to have qualified. There are so many things to consider. Like what a horrible time of year it will be for me… as I scramble to finish my dissertation and hopefully find some type of gainful employment. And how expensive it will be. Plane tickets, hotel, race registration fee, etc. I’m just feeling so overwhelmed. I don’t know if anyone besides my immediate friends and family will have gotten through this gargantuan post, but if any runners out there are reading, what I’m wondering is if I can elect to do the Boston Marathon in 2010 instead of 2009. From the information on the BAA website, it seems to indicate that a qualifying time after September 29, 2008, makes you eligible for both the 2009 and 2010 race. If I could really truly defer my time and run the 2010 race instead, that might be so much better for me. There is just so much in my life that needs to be accomplished between now and April, that the thought of cramming in a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Boston is almost more than I can handle. We’ll have to see how to work this out.

At any rate, I should end this before it gets any longer. I just want to point out that the icing on the cake is that I did this whole thing 100% vegan. I know there were people out there who thought I was going to wither up and die when I went from vegetarian to vegan, but I’d say this is living proof that an animal free lifestyle suits me well. Its kind of amusing to see the look of horror on peoples’ faces when they find out I’m vegan and to hear the inevitable “What do you eat!?” I eat lots of lovely, lovely things that allowed me to BQ and to shave off 10 whole minutes from my previous best marathon time!

Oh yeah, and I did the whole thing wearing my Bitch Socks.

Thanks for reading!