French Toast

While we're in bread mode (yes, I'm still thinking bread over here), I have a confession to make.

I love French toast.

I mean really really really love it.

But not just any French toast will do. It has to be homemade with French bread (or Italian or whatever other kind of loaf I pick up from the grocery store bakery). Because for some reason, if it's made with regular bread, French toast isn't all that interesting to me. A bit too soggy and a bit too boring, I guess.

It's only on my to-eat list when it looks like this. (These are baby French toasts. But I'm an equal opportunity eater so I adore the big pieces too.)

And when it looks like this, I'll eat a lot of it. A lot. When I was younger and My Mom would make French toast occasionally on the weekends, I'd eat nearly a whole loaf worth of it myself. (Fortunately, no one else in my family loves French toast quite as much as me, so they didn't protest too loudly when I ate more than my fair share.)

Now, from time to time I make it for myself. (French toast with a side of fresh fruit is pretty much the best weekend breakfast ever, in my world anyway.)

And, perhaps best of all, making French toast is about as easy can be. Get a pan nice and warm. Whisk an egg or two and some milk together. Dip each side of the sliced bread in the egg mixture and plop it in the pan until it's golden-brown; then flip the bread over to cook the other side. See? Easy. No need to get all fancy.

Once the French toast is done there are only two things separating me from devouring it: butter and powdered sugar. Go ahead, spread a generous layer of butter over each piece and watch it melt into the bread. Then hurry and sprinkle powdered sugar on each slice. Don't be stingy. Add a bit more. It won't kill you—it'll just make you happier.

That's it. Then it's time to eat. Yes, you heard that (or, rather, didn't hear that) right: I don't eat syrup on my French toast.

It's My Mom's fault. This is how she ate her toast when I was younger and now it's how I eat mine too. Like mother, like daughter (in so many things besides French toast eating, but we'll get into that later).

I won't hold it against you if you go to town with the syrup on yours. I promise. But try one—just once, just for me—with just butter and powdered sugar.



Baking Bread

I am a lover of bread—of good bread, I should clarify, although I haven’t really met a bread I didn’t like. Despite the fact that I know I’d be better off with a double serving of veggies instead, I like nothing more than a big crusty baguette to accompany my meals.

Yet me? Making it? Yikes.

There’s something intimidating about baking bread. I think nothing of trying ridiculously complicated recipes, which I only succeed at making well a small portion of the time. Yet the thought of baking bread—real bread, because I know my banana bread doesn’t count—gets my heart racing.

I know I’m not alone. There’s just something about bread that seems so ... I don’t know ... special. And complicated. And time-consuming. As if only a certain few can actually make it from scratch, and the rest of us are destined to buy it from store shelves or bakeries or artisans at farmer’s markets forever. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Admittedly, there’s the bread machine, which takes the guesswork and hard work out of the process. Dump the ingredients in, shut the lid, press a few buttons, and come back a few hours later. My Mom had a bread machine when I was younger and it was wonderful—fresh bread, pizza dough, you name it. But it’s just not the same as getting dirty, of doing it yourself, of taking full responsibility should it fail.

So this weekend I finally worked up the nerve to try bread-baking myself.

Before I even began, I had visions of pulling a crusty French loaf from the oven, of serving it to friends and family with flourish. But I knew better. I had to slow down and take this one step at a time. So I decided to start with what looked like a particularly easy, tasty recipe, which I found—where else?—at Smitten Kitchen. (You must click that link to actually get the recipe. I can't bother myself to type it here, as I need to focus on rambling instead. You understand?)

It's called light wheat bread. I thought it was a good pick for a number of reasons, including but not limited to: 1. It looked pretty easy, which is very important for a bread-making scaredy cat; 2. It looked absolutely divine (but what doesn't on Smitten Kitchen?); 3. It's light wheat bread, which means I'll-use-you-for-sandwich bread, rather than I'll-stand-at-the-counter-and-eat-the-whole-loaf bread (also very important).

Ready? Deep breath. Here we go.

[Insert sound of screeching brakes here.]

Great. I didn't even make it out of the driveway, figuratively speaking of course, and I already have a problem. I need a four-quart bowl. I don't own a four-quart bowl. None of my bowls are even close to four quarts. Apparently, they're all sissies.

Time to improvise. Which is why you see me making bread here in a giant pot (which, I am reminded, belongs to Conservative Mom and I should probably return—sorry!).

In go all the dry ingredients. (Even the yeast, no fancy work required.) So far so good.

Then, once I've mixed in the shortening and water and mixed some more until the dough forms a ball (almost), I toss it on the floured counter.

Now comes the fun part. Knead, knead, knead. (Sorry, kneading = no photo taking. Use your imagination here.)

The process of kneading is pretty terrific, I have to say. I knead for a good 10 minutes. But time flies, in part because I am singing along to Fleetwood Mac (what? don't look at me like that ... I love Fleetwood Mac). There's something so soothing, music or not, about the feeling of the warm dough in your hands, of the back and forth motion of kneading. I don't even mind when it takes a bit more than 10 minutes before the bread really feels ready. (Admittedly, Butter minds. He decides halfway into kneading that it's time for a potty break and stands by the door waiting for me to let him out until I finish. Impatient bugger.)

Once it's kneaded to perfection (almost), I roll the dough around in a lightly oiled bowl and then let it rise for about an hour and a half.

I want to stand there for the entire 90 minutes and stare at the bread, watching it rise. But that’s just plain silly. So instead I go away, then come back and look at it every five minutes. This is much more productive of me.

After an hour and a half, the bread looks like this:

And then, once I follow the directions for patting it out and rolling it up so it's ready to proof, it looks like this:

Proofing, however, turns out to be impatience part two. Another hour! Argh! Only it's not so bad, with my six-minute check-ins and all. (Yep, up to six minutes now.)

And, it turns out, I'm not the only one who's impatient. Every time I walk into the kitchen to see how things are rising, this fellow perks up too, thinking it's time for a treat.

No bread for Butter.

(I'm really sorry. I couldn't resist.)

Then, finally, it has arisen! (Let me be grammatically questionable here, OK?)

Don't believe me? Here's the before:

And here's the after:

Guess what? Now it finally goes in the oven. And here's the beautiful part about baking with Julie: Thanks to the old-school oven, baking always takes considerably less time than the recipes say. So within 30 minutes, this baby is ready to come out.

Even before it's done, though, it smells like heaven. Mmmm. Bread-baking heaven. Mmmm.

And when it's done, I'm excited. (Betcha didn't see that coming.) Because it looks like bread, which is a very good sign. (At least I think—I am an amateur, so I could be wrong.)

At this point, things get tough. I dig down way deep inside and somehow come up with enough willpower to not touch the bread at all for another hour. I added italics just to emphasis that it was a tremendous feat.

And then, when an hour is up (to the second), I slice away.

And eat two pieces while slicing the loaf. Hey, get off me. I can’t help it. Do you realize how patient I've been?

The verdict: This bread is good. Maybe not the world's most heavenly bread. But good. Definitely cinnamon toast and sandwich-worthy. I'll make it again, maybe even next weekend.


The Longest Quiz

I had good intentions of writing to you yesterday. I really did.

And then I went to my environmental econ class night, poised to dominate my second quiz like I did my first one.

I emerged—2 hours and 20 minutes after good ol' Roy first handed me the evil pile of papers that he called a quiz—like I'd been wrung dry of any possible economic knowledge I'd crammed in my head. By then it was 10 p.m., and finally I headed home, which allowed me a good 40 minutes in the car to contemplate how the heck I was going to get through the midterm in two weeks if the quiz took that long. I might need a vat of coffee and a sleeping bag then ... I might be there for three straight days ... I might have an aneurysm halfway through trying to figure out the optimal level of pollution (a phrase that still makes me laugh, by the way).

(And, I'd just like to point out, that after 2 hours and 20 minutes I was the second one to finish my quiz and leave. I don't even want to know what time the rest of them got out of there.)

Dear, dear Roy, you do grade on a curve, don't you?


A Wintertime Farmers Market


I miss the farmer's market.

It's winter, of course, and in winter the park downtown is quiet as can be on Saturday mornings.

The same can be said for downtown Des Moines and most other places that bustle with vendors and shoppers on warm-weather weekends.

That's why I was so excited at Christmastime to find out that the Dupont Circle farmer's market in DC runs year-round.

And it was bustling when I was there in December and again last weekend.

It satisfied my farmer's market craving at least for a couple of weeks.

And I took some photos too, in case you're having the same problem I am.

(Did you notice the random photos scattered throughout this post? OK. Good. Just checking.)


P.S. That last photo is soap. And it smells delicious. I kind of want to make soap now. Who's with me?


Chilling with Air Force One

Once upon a time Julie decided to go to Washington D.C. It was February, and she had just visited D.C. at Christmastime. But she couldn't resist another excuse to go to one of her favorite cities.

And so she booked her ticket and packed her bag (sort of). And then, hours before she was scheduled to take off, she learned that someone with a lot more power than her was throwing a wrench in her plans.

His name was President Obama. And he was flying into the Peoria airport on a not-so-little airplane known as Air Force One at the exact moment when she was supposed to fly out of Peoria on a quite little airplane that has no special name.

So the second Julie got home from teaching, she threw whatever she could find into her bag, grabbed the sandwich Conservative Boy so kindly made her, and ran out the door in an attempt to race to Peoria before the roads closed.

Somehow, magically, she made it all the way to the airport exit. And then she drove in the opposite direction of the airport for about 30 seconds because a massive unmarked plane (probably carrying President Obama's armored vehicle) swooped over her head, so low it looked as if it were going to land on the road right in front of her, and she lost all conscious thought about which way she was supposed to be driving. Fortunately, no one was hurt in her confusion.

Apparently, the travel gods were smiling on her, because she made it to the airport without further incident and her plane was on time despite the madness about to descend.

Once it was supposed to be boarding time, Julie learned her plane would be delayed for an unmentionable reason. And so she stood in the tiny Peoria airport by the window and watched as helicopters flew overhead and people paced, hoping for a glimpse of something. Then that something came, in the form of Air Force One, dropping out of the sky seemingly out of nowhere (which is apparently how it always lands). She watched Air Force Once cruise by but it happened so quickly she wasn't able to get a photo. So then she found another window at the other end of the terminal where she could see the plane turning around and tried to take a photo (with her sad little digital camera that apparently doesn't have much of a zoom).

Unfortunately, there were a few obstacles in the way. But that's its tail, really.

When she got back to her gate, where you couldn't see Air Force One anymore, she found an interesting site.

Her fellow passengers were taking photos of the television, which was showing the President getting off the plane right on the other side of the window. And so she did what any sane person would do. She took a photo of the strange people taking photos.

Then, moments later, the caravan o' vehicles began.

Get out the magnifying glass and look really hard. Now guess which vehicle the President is in. No clue? It's OK, Julie didn't know either.

Once the exceptionally long and fast-moving caravan passed, life returned to normal. Shortly thereafter, Julie boarded her plane for Chicago and prayed she'd make her connection in O'Hare in time. And then, as they taxied out to the runway, Julie discovered her side of the plane was facing Air Force One. It was the perfect view. It was right there, right beside her, in all its giant glory, with United States of American emblazoned all along its side.

And the sun was strategically placed so that she couldn't even get a photo of it. Of course.


The B-Word

No, silly. Not that b-word. See if you can guess which one I'm talking about.

Working. Teaching. Grading papers. Grading more papers. Meeting with students. Filling out progress reports. Working out (on rare occasions). Eating. Bathing (aren't you glad I fit that in?). Rubbing Butter's belly. Finishing my taxes (admittedly, with expert assistance). Filling out FAFSA. Turning in scholarship applications. Attending degree committee meetings. Getting my economics learn on. Getting my organizational communication learn on. Writing some more. Untangling Butter from trees. Seeing Conservative Boy in passing. Wishing our terrific new couch would get here. Wishing our new debit cards would get here too. Grading more papers. Working.

Now do you know what B-word I'm talking about?

If that totally bored you, maybe you will find this a bit more interesting? (Note that this occurred in the same week as all of the above.)

Encountering Air Force One up close and personal. Sprinting through O'Hare. Chilling at the Foreign Service Institute with approximately 92 future U.S. ambassadors (including everyone's favorite little diplomat ...). Eating. Drinking. Seeing my sister. Seeing some of my best friends. Taking exceptionally strange photos (with the aforementioned people) that will not be shared here. Newseum-ing. Eating delicious cupcakes. Eating pastries at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market. Moseying through O'Hare—and then contemplating whether another sprint would be better to work off all those cupcakes and pastries and drinks.

Breathless yet?


Molten Chocolate Cakes

Hello! And happy Valentine's Day. I'm in Washington D.C. today enjoying a weekend with friends and My Sister. That means Conservative Boy and Butter are playing bachelor.

To make up for the fact that I'd be gone for Valentine's Day (although C.B. doesn't care too much—he thinks it's a stupid holiday), I stood in front of the cupboard the other night trying to figure out what I could make that would wow for dessert—without going to the store or spending more than about 20 minutes in the kitchen.

And then I saw my Baker's bittersweet chocolate, 3 pieces to be exact, leftover from my mocha fudge sauce making at Christmas. Bingo!

This molten chocolate cake recipe actually came from the inside of the chocolate box. And it's easy. Really, take my word for it. Easy. But your honey won't think so. He or she will take one look at it and be amazed ... and salivating. So if you're looking for a last-minute treat for dinner tonight, try this. You won't regret it. (I halved the recipe, by the way.)

Molten Chocolate Cakes
1 pkg (6 squares) Baker's Bittersweet Baking Chocolate
10 tbsp butter (sorry—I didn't say anything about healthy!)
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup flour
3 whole eggs
3 egg yolks

Grease 6 (6-oz) custard cups or souffle dishes. Place on baking sheet.

Microwave chocolate and butter in large microwavable bowl on high 2 minutes or until butter is melted. Stir until chocolate is completely melted. Add powdered sugar and flour; mix well. Add whole eggs and egg yolks; stir with wire whisk until well blended. Divide batter evenly among prepared custard cups.

Baked at 425 degrees for 14 to 15 minutes or until cakes are firm around edges but soft in the centers. Let stand 1 minute. Run small knife around cakes to loosen. Carefully invert cakes onto dessert dishes. Garnish as desired (not that they need any help!). Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

(You can make these ahead of time; just cover the cups and place them in the fridge until you're ready to bake.)


Tilapia with Cajun Cream Sauce

When Conservative Boy and I lived in Des Moines, one of our favorite restaurants, Nick's, was the sort of spot you didn't hear about much, but it was always busy when we went. Big dark booths, a bit of Sinatra playing through the speakers, great food and cocktails.

One of Conservative Boy's favorite meals was the Tilapia Caroline, which involved tilapia topped with crab and an incredibly flavorful cajun cream sauce (which also tasted divine on pasta, let me tell you). Last week, he came home from the store with a package of tilapia and announced he thought we should try it out at home.

So we did some searching and found a few possible cajun cream sauce recipes. We threw out the possibility of crab, because the imitation crab at Kroger just wouldn't cut it.

And then I set out to create our own version of Tilapia Caroline. Here it is. Conservative Boy gave it two thumbs up. That means you should try it.

Cajun Cream Sauce (adapted from Ann...By Hand and a few other recipes I found)

Diced onion (I used about a quarter of a large onion)
1 tbsp butter
1 clove garlic
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
about 1 tbsp flour
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 tbsp catsup
Cajun spices (lots!)
Tabasco (a few shakes, then a few more)
1/3 c. heavy (whipping) cream

Saute onion in butter over low heat about 1 minute. Add garlic, oil, and flour and heat to make a roux (aka, a base). Add stock, wine, and catsup (this'll make it a bit sweeter) and reduce. Add cajun spices and Tabasco and then add twice as much as you originally thought and continue cooking. After 5 minutes or so, add cream and thicken to desired consistency.

Cook your tilapia. For my tilapia, I just improvised. I placed about a teaspoon of butter atop each piece of fish, sprinkled it liberally with Old Bay seasoning, salt, and pepper, squeezed on a bit of fresh lemon, and stuck it in the oven to broil until it was flaky (which, in our super-powered beast, only takes a few minutes).

Spread the cream generously over the tilapia.

Serve with some tasty sweet potato fries (easy—toss the potatoes with olive oil, paprika, pepper, and salt, then bake in the oven at 425 degrees for 20 minutes or so, tossing once halfway through).



New Recipes

In case you were wondering if my cooking motivation has fallen off, it hasn't. It's just that when life gets busy, I don't spend as much time on elaborate meals—or photos of those elaborate meals.

I cooked three times this past week, however, and tried a new recipe each time. They're all quick and easy and worth cooking should you be so inclined:

Garlicky broiled salmon from Real Simple—very flavorful; I skipped the tomatoes but do want to try them with it next time

Beef and noodles from the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook—not the most gourmet meal in the history of the world, but it's a hearty home-cooked dish nonetheless

Lemon chicken with olives
from Real Simple—also pretty flavorful, although cooking takes a lot longer than estimated when you're using giant chicken breasts rather than the cutlets the recipe calls for

In other dining news, Conservative Boy treated me to a terrific meal last night at Swingers Grille in Bloomington. I had the Blue Cheese Flat Iron Steak with Truffle Mashed Potatoes. (I just finished my leftovers for lunch, by the way.) C.B. had Crab Stuffed Shrimp. (No leftovers there.) And although we were stuffed, we had chocolate covered strawberries that were to die for. Yum.

Oh, and one more thing: We stopped at Great Harvest Bread Co. yesterday too. So this morning we had fresh Cinnamon Crunch bread for breakfast. If you've never had it, you must try it. Heaven, I tell you. (We picked up a loaf of honey wheat for sandwiches too, so now I'm delaying my foray into bread-making for another week. Stay tuned!)


Battling Butter's Allergies

After a trip to the vet the other day, we learned that the reason Butter can’t stop scratching and licking all the hair off his body (yes, really, he licks until there’s no hair left!) is because he may have food allergies.

Apparently, there’s a good chance it’s from feeding him people food. Which means we have to stop. Two and a half days into the no food policy, I’m struggling. Butter is too, but I think it’s hurting me more than him.

It’s mostly my fault Butter started eating people food in the first place, although Conservative Boy has fed him more than his fair share of pizza rolls, Doritos, and other treats (not to mention sips of beverages I shall not name here lest you be horrified).

It’s just that he was so skinny when he first arrived. And he looked up at me with those big puppy dog eyes (yes, the cliché is true) and I just couldn’t resist handing over my last bit of banana, the bite of buttered roll I was about to stick in my mouth, an occasional piece of cheese. Anything and everything he looked at longingly, he got to taste.

You try resisting when that warm little head perches on your lap and he gazes up at you while you eat. You try resisting when he sits calmly next to the table watching you, then reaches out a paw to remind you, hey, I’m right here whenever you’re ready to hand that over. Go ahead, say no, when he stands in the kitchen watching you cook until the drool slipping out of both sides of his mouth reaches nearly to the floor, a slobbery Fu Manchu.

You try saying no when, after you finish your cereal mid-morning, he stops to let you leave the office first, then runs ahead in the hall, spins a circle in the living room so you can catch up, and then follows you to the sink so you can set the bowl on the floor for him. Every. Single. Morning. There’s something about that beautifully orchestrated routine that seems so wrong when, at the end of it, the milk runs down the drain and the tail-wagging isn’t accompanied by fervent lapping.

Now I have to look away when I rinse the plates in the sink without setting them on the floor for him to lick first. Because he gazes up at me, puzzled, disappointed, brow furrowed. What did I do wrong, Julie?

And so I keep telling him: I’m sorry, Butter. This is for your own good—knowing full well it’s harder for me than for him. He’s a dog after all.

And I’m the crazy person who feeds him too much people food and talks to him all the time as if he cares a lick for my rambling. At least he’s not allergic to my chatter (I hope—or we're in big trouble here).


A Blog Birthday

Big news in the world of Julie! I just realized today is the one year anniversary of Julie Tries. Can you believe, dear readers, that some of you have put up with my randomness for a year now? That's 181 posts, counting this one.

Crazy, isn't it?

Stick around for another year and I promise to find even more wacky things to try, more ridiculous rants to share, and probably at least 500 more pictures of Butter to post. Oh ... and, sometime soon, I'll share a new blog design with you too.

Thanks for supporting my writing and rambling habit for the past year. You're the bestest.

Ice Milk

As you may have heard mention of a time or two, I get my milk (and sometimes eggs or the most delicious peanut butter chocolate ice cream ever) delivered to my doorstep once a week by Oberweis Dairy.

Now, as you also may have heard, Butter does not like delivery people of any sort. And the Oberweis delivery person who comes around 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning is, in Butter's world, particularly evil.

I convinced Conservative Boy to deal with Butter's late-night freak-0uts each time the milk came but finally—finally—I caved in and said I'd cancel so he'd stop destroying our sleep. Only the very nice Oberweis people did not want to lose my business and asked if we might make different arrangements.

So I agreed to try placing the milk cooler at the end of our driveway instead of on the front step. And last week it worked perfectly—Butter didn't stir.

But this week he's been a particularly restless fellow—barking at things a few times each night. And so the milk delivery did cause him to bark last night—but only for a moment, and only like he does whenever a car passes on our quiet street too late at night.

And so this morning at about 6 a.m. I headed out in my PJs and Conservative Boy's exceptionally massive down coat (his Michelin Man coat, if you will) to bring the cooler back to the front step. That was when I discovered the first-ever Oberweis fatality: It was so cold last night that the milk froze and the bottle shattered. Well, not so much shattered as exploded in the middle, so that I opened the cooler to find the bottom covered in a milky, glassy slush.

Usually I bring the milk in at 2 a.m. since Butter makes sure I know it has arrived anyway. But now that it's at the end of the driveway and he doesn't bark long enough to really wake me up fully, I figured I could leave it in the cooler until morning. Apparently, that won't work when it gets this cold. Sniff. Lesson learned.

(On a side note, to whoever reads this blog and recently decided to try Oberweis for yourself, thanks for mentioning my name! I received a most generous $50 referral credit this week, which blunted the pain of one lost bottle. And please don't let my bottle-shattering tale deter the rest of you from milk deliveries. It's quite handy and most delicious!)


Avoiding HFCS

Awhile ago, back when I was on my Michael Pollan kick and was reading The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, I realized just how nasty high-fructose corn syrup is.

And this isn't a case of me blindly listening to everything Mr. Pollan has to say just because I adore him, by the way. (Full disclosure: I do adore him.) The evil effects of HFCS have been confirmed by quite a bit of research.

For starters, studies have linked consumption of HFCS to kidney and liver diseases, rising obesity rates, and the general lack of good health among Americans. (Of course, part of the problem is that most of the foods that HFCS appears in are highly processed and pretty much lacking in nutritional value all around.)

Plus producing HFCS takes one heck of a toll on the environment—I won't bore you with my rambling about Big Corn and monoculture and the resulting pollutants, erosion, etc. Just consider this: hermaphroditic male frogs. Not so fantastic.

And yes, I have seen the the Corn Refiners Association ads that say concerns over HFCS are misplaced. And no, I don't believe them. They're not very convincing. At all.

As anyone who's seen me knows, I'm not the sort who has to diet. Never have. (I realize that could change any day, that my metabolism could slam on the brakes and say, "You know what Julie, it's time to slow down" ... but for now, it's racing along at its usual rate as long as I keep exercising and don't eat nasty junk all day every day.) Thanks to the aforementioned metabolism, I am able to regularly indulge my soft spot for pasta with creamy sauces, anything that involves fresh baked bread and butter (real butter), and any homemade sweets I can get my hands on. And I eat meat, although not near as much as I used to.

In other words, the obesity epidemic Pollan and others regularly speak of isn't really a concern for me personally. Yet I'm still conscientious about what I eat—I don't buy all organic produce (expensive!), but do buy as much as I reasonably can (if nothing else, organic versions of the Dirty Dozen when I can find them around here). I try to squeeze in as many fruit and veggies in my day as I can (admittedly, some days I succeed more than others). I love those things that have been hailed (recently, at least) as good for you—cooking with olive oil, garlic, a glass of red wine, dark chocolate. (Don't those sound like indulgences to you?)

I'm also the sort who—despite what you may think about some of the wacky things I've been known to try—does not fall into fads easily. But when I read something that's backed up with research, something that's logical and makes sense, I say, "OK. You convinced me." Such was the case with BPA and water bottles.

And after learning about HFCS, that meant avoiding products that contain it. And I did pretty darn well for a while. Avoiding it is as easy as looking at product labels, after all. And although a ton of items in the supermarket include it, a lot more don't. (Plus it's a lot easier to avoid if you're cooking a lot rather than buying premade, prepackaged junk.)

But then I started teaching and taking classes. And when you're busy it's easy to let your guard down. And so I haven't paid attention to labels quite as much.

Now, however, I'm about to start again. Because this week, I learned this:

High-fructose corn syrup is commonly tainted with highly toxic mercury, according to a peer reviewed report in Environmental Health. And yep, the FDA has known about it since results of the study came out. In 2005. And yep, they did nothing about it, until a renegade author of the study went ahead and published the results on her own. Testing has since revealed traces of mercury in some products from a few companies you may know well: Quaker, Hunt's, Manwich, Hershey's, Smucker's, Kraft, Nutri-Grain, and Yoplait.

You can read more about it from this Grist article.

That's enough for me to start serious label reading again. Both Butter and I are very sad that the list includes Yoplait. I pretty much stopped eating it when I lived in Des Moines—I ate some locally made yogurts and lots of Stoneyfield Farm. But Yoplait was cheaper and C.B. preferred it so lately I started buying it again for both of us (and for Butter, who's a fan of our leftovers). Now, however, it's back to Stoneyfield Farm. (Not that it's a bad thing—have you tasted their yogurt? Deeelicious.) And it's back to weeding out other things that include HFCS (some in our house right now: the cheap store-bought bread on the counter, the granola bars we eat when things get busy, and the Yoplait of course).

I'll pass on the HFCS and the mercury, thanks. How about you?


An Analysis of Butter

Despite the fact that he may very well be the happiest dog in the world, there are a few things Butter does not like.

He does not like it when we ignore him when he stands next to the treat cupboard, sniffing the spot where we usually open the door, waiting semi-patiently for a treat. (This, he does often.)

He does not like running into doors because we do not open them fast enough for him to run through.

He does not like it when we—Conservative Boy and I, and whoever else might join us—sit at the dining room table and eat without acknowledging that he is sitting beside us, drooling on our thighs, waiting for a bite.

He does not like it when we place plates in the dishwasher before allowing him to lick them clean.

He does not like getting tangled around the tree in the backyard when he’s roaming on his chain. (Oh wait, that’s the one I don’t like because I have to go out and untangle him. I think he does it on purpose, actually.)

Sometimes he does not like it when we wipe his paws clean when he comes in from outside. He’ll snap at us then, warning us he is not in the mood. But actually, most of the time, this he does not mind.

He doesn’t like it when I won’t let him sniff other dogs’ butts on our walks. This makes him sad more than mad, I think. He’s a dog-loving dog if there ever was one. (Fortunately, he recently had the opportunity to sniff his friend Cubby’s butt and chase him around our basement for quite some time, so that will hopefully satisfy his butt-sniffing urge for a while.)

He does not like the bright lights of cars late at night, whether they are driving by on our quiet street or stopping to see the neighbors. Past 10 p.m., any car lights signal trouble. And he’ll be sure to let us know.

Most of all he does not like squirrels. Or rabbits. Or any other intruders. (Besides birds. He doesn’t mind them, even when they fly directly into the window where he is sitting and flop to the ground below, mortally wounded. For some reason, this does not faze him.)

But should he spot—or, just sense, really—squirrels chasing one another up the trunk of a tree in the backyard, he is suddenly hopping up on the windowsill in the dining room, the hair on his back standing straight up like a mohawk, panting and whimpering and carrying on.

Should he be outside when the squirrels make an appearance, he immediately jumps up on the trunk of the tree where they sit, as if he has single-handedly treed them, and lets out a frantic, high-pitched bark that surely has the neighbors thinking I am beating him. And when a rabbit manages to perch perfectly still on the brown patch of soil that only a few months ago was my front-yard garden, Butter will squeal and hop around and let out low rumbles from deep in his throat as if that rabbit, sitting so serenely, signals the end of the world.

Now that I think about it, however, I am reminded of something that Butter likes even less than squirrels or rabbits.

The mailman. Or any delivery person for that matter, who breaches what he considers sacred space (aka the front stoop) at any point in the day or night. They are the ultimate intruders. Any person who would come every day, right up to the house, but not be let in, must be bad. Any person who drives such a strange-looking, noisy truck, and walks right up to the front door of every house on the street without being let in, must be bad.

For a while, he would get so worked up over the mailman coming each day that he would jump up on the glass of the front window and scratch at it and bark the bark to end all barks. The glass of our front window and the curtains that frame it have the claw marks to prove it. He’s since calmed down a bit (thanks to a bit of training), but still, delivery people are his enemies.

And so he will alert me to any delivery person’s presence—day or night—urgently, angrily. Just so I know the house—if only for a minute—is under attack.

What a guard dog.

Other than that, Butter is an infinitely happy fellow. He is no longer afraid of baths, stairs, hair brushing, or any of the other things that alarmed him when he first came to live with us. He still won’t get too close to the hairdryer, but he no longer barks at it—just looks at it like what it is, an odd curiousity. And even though the vacuum is still a big bad monster, he chases it around and barks at it now rather than running away, cowering. All in all, he’s a pretty tough fellow.

Or a big softy, depending on how you look at it.