PTSD Awareness Series: Part Four

Welcome to week four of the PTSD Awareness Series.  If you have been following along from week to week I thank you.  If this is your first visit to the blog, I encourage you to read the other three posts in this series as well as the fun food memory centered, “An Appetite for Memory” mini series.  As mentioned in the past couple of posts, I will be focusing on coping tools this week to finish out the series as PTSD Awareness Month comes to a close.

***Special Note:  This article contains strong language at times.  Parents/guardians please monitor your young readers***

Regardless of where you are in your PTSD healing journey, coping tools are essential.  Positive and genuine support are essential.  Consider yourself a carpenter of sorts.  You have a tool belt around your waist and on any given day and for any given symptom, there is an ideal tool to help you cope.  PTSD comes with a range of symptoms and not all PTSD warriors experience the same symptoms in the same way and at the same volume.  I personally do not have suicidal thoughts and do not self harm but there are many people battling these symptoms on a daily basis.  The 22 movement concerning the number of veterans who commit suicide everyday reflects this.

While I have no desire to run a blade across my arms for symptom relief, I do find myself on my tattoo artists table from time to time.  I never get a piece that isn’t meaningful to me which means I don’t get a tattoo for the sole purpose of coping but I will admit that I understand why people self harm.  When I get a tattoo and it is serving as, “ink therapy,” I notice something.  My body relaxes.  I could be having a complete PTSD mind fuck but when my tattoo artist is doing line work and shading and talking to me, my body relaxes.  My breathing changes from shallow and unsteady to a little fuller and completely steady.  I have yet to experience any physical pain that is even on the same plane as PTSD mental and emotional pain.

One day my tattoo artist, who has become a close friend, shared that she had a veteran client with severe PTSD who would come in for, “ink therapy.”  Sometimes his wife would call her and ask if she had even just one hour to tattoo something, anything, because he was so distraught and having a tattoo gun hum in the background and needle break his skin with ink was enough to distract and calm him from his PTSD pain.  Tattoo work is a tool in my tool belt.

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Speaking of background or white noise, music is one of my most valued tools.  I can be sad, angry, scared, triggered you name it; I have a song, artist or playlist for that.  I have my Beats earbuds with me at work, walking my dog, painting my home, grocery shopping, just about everywhere I go.  I have a back up pair of earbuds in my car just in case I forget my Beats or they stop functioning.  The first time I went camping in Colorado I didn’t have my music because I was off the grid and I loved it but I purposely set up my camp next to the rushing creek because silence is often difficult for me.  I appreciate quiet but total silence is like a black hole.

I remember one day while I was working in a kitchen that is not my own, I was battling another PTSD mid fuck.  I don’t remember what put me in that head space but dinner service was slow and I put one earbud in and started listening to music on low volume so that I could still hear what was going on around me for when an order finally came in.  The GM told the sous chef to have me take them out and rightfully so but suddenly my trigger turned into a combination of rage and sadness.  I wanted to scream at him and say, “Fuck you!  You have no idea how much this helps me and you’re contributing to my mind fuck by telling me to put it away!”  Of course I never say these things because PTSD or not this is unprofessional and completely unacceptable so I kept my mind fuck to myself and tried to do something else to cope.  The energy it takes to function in a world that does not have nor understands PTSD when you have it is daunting and exhausting.  There is a reason PTSD comes with such staggering suicidal statistics and that too is an important conversation that not enough people are having.

Noise versus silence.  I can go through a silent meditation but a guided meditation is significantly better for me.  Music, a voice guiding the meditation or speaking affirmations is better than silence or even bells.  Sometimes it’s not about a formal meditation and more about a relaxing noise.  While meditation apps like Headspace and Insight Timer are helpful, sometimes an app like Windy, which lets you customize nature sounds like rain, crickets and even wind, is what I need.  Sometimes listening to a podcast like Michael Stone’s Awake in The World is what my mind responds to the best.  Different tools for different scenarios.

Yoga tends to go hand in hand with meditation and quite honestly when I started yoga I had no idea how beneficial it was going to be for me.  I learned about mindfulness, mediation and the mind, body connection.  Sometimes I get on my mat to stretch my back, tight hip flexors or a wonky shoulder and what I end up releasing in addition to tight muscles is emotion.  When I first started yoga I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect.  I was living in Milwaukee at the time and while my ex husband and I hadn’t separated yet our marriage was on life support.  I discovered a yoga studio just a ten minute walk away from our apartment.  Core Essence Yoga was the first studio I went to and the owner, Shayne Broadwell, is one of the most calming and open minded teachers I have ever met.  She is very realistic in her teachings and it’s refreshing when you have also been to a super flowery yoga class.  Despite my nerves I dove in and started a regular practice.  Discovering that studio and making the friends that I did was like coming up for air after having my head held under water for so long.

Exercise is another important tool for me.  I have been an athlete all my life so exercise and competitive sports are second nature for me.  While I always enjoy physical activity, exercising during a trigger or while experiencing a higher level of anxiety is even more beneficial.  A lot of PTSD warriors have to manage rage symptoms.  While the anger I tend to experience is an intrinsic process versus an external symptom, weight lifting and or cardio are prime tools for me to cope with what’s going on in my body and mind.  It’s an internal adjustment so most of the time people have no idea what’s happening but I do and it’s such a good feeling when the trigger lessens as I’m working out.

Touchstones can be helpful when trying to ground as well.  Recovering alcoholics have chips.  I have a few touchstones including a few tattoos that are helpful reminders when I am trying to settle my mind.  Sometimes running my hand over the Spanish word “fuerza” which means “strength” in English on my right forearm reminds me that I am strong and resilient.  Sometimes just looking at the Sanskrit tattoo on my collar bone reminds me that yes, “I suffered. I learned. I changed.” but I’m still moving forward on my journey.  Ahimsa,  on my wrist reminds me to have patience with myself and have more positive self talk in my mind than criticism.  More tangible is the My Intent bracelet I wear inscribed with “Heart” and “Courage.”  Sometimes I need to feel closer to my family so I wear my Dads Army dog tags and I feel the strength of my family and even the Army on my side.  The Inca cross I wear reminds me that I am my ancestors’ wildest dream and to keep pushing forward in my work and overcoming my symptoms.

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One of the biggest lessons that has helped me is the understanding that things will never go back to normal but instead a new normal must be learned.  The normal after the trauma.  The normal built piece by piece by you and hopefully people who support your process.  I can’t emphasize enough how positive and supportive people help the process.  The people who walk away from you are people you never really had in the first place.  It hurts and it sucks but if they’re not in your corner during your internal fight, they didn’t belong there in the first place.

The point of this article is to encourage you to find what works best for you.  I’ll reference the significant PTSD episode of You’re The Worst once more.  Toward the end of the episode after the character Edgar has fallen through the cracks of VA services, he’s talking with another veteran who tells him about a couple of military buddies who cope with their PTSD in different ways.  One does yoga, one has a companion dog and another, “…locks himself in his bedroom and stabs the closet door.  He’s not getting his deposit back but once the rage passes he’s fine.”  Even if you think you have an unorthodox coping tool, that’s perfectly fine as long as you’re not hurting yourself or others.  Whether you stab your closet door or lay on your tattoo artists table for a few hours, find what works and don’t let anyone tell you what is a “normal” coping tool or not.  You’re the only one who gets to decide that because you’re the one going through your own unique healing process.

Thank you for reading and following Alpaca Roaming.  It is my hope that even just one person found relief, peace, help or otherwise by reading the June mini series for PTSD Awareness Month.  Stay tuned for upcoming events and future articles.  Below are some resources and tools if you or someone you know could benefit from them.  Until next time, be good to yourself and one anther.  It’s what makes us human after all.

TOOL BELT:

  1. Tattoo work – those in Denver can find any number talented tattoo artists but my top pick is Laura Thomas of The Blue Door on Broadway.
  2. Yoga
  3. Meditation
  4. Exercise
  5. Cooking and Baking
  6. Socializing
  7. Therapy – massage, talk etc…
  8. Gardening
  9. Art – creating it or observing it.
  10. Acupuncture
  11. Writing
  12. Companion or service animal
  13. Existing in nature – hiking etc…
  14. Reading

PTSD Awareness Series: Part Three

Welcome to week three of the PTSD Awareness Series here on Alpaca Roaming.  Thank you for revisiting the blog but if this is your first week reading I thank you and encourage you to check out the other articles both on the subject of PTSD as well as the food memory series.  This week I will be covering the topic of PTSD in the armed forces.  It is what most people familiar with PTSD associate as the cause of this dis-ease but as I have covered in the past two articles, PTSD can occur from any traumatic experience.  In each week of the series I have dedicated a certain subject to the article to both bring awareness to the specific topic but also to expose you as the reader to the various symptoms associated with PTSD, the different causes of PTSD and the various coping tools for PTSD as well.  More on coping tools in another article.

I have several friends, family members, colleagues and acquaintances who have served in the various branches of the U.S. military.  For this article, I spoke with a friend and colleague about his Army experience and life with PTSD. 

I work with a man named John who retired from the army after 18 years of service.  He was deployed to Afghanistan, Korea, Alaska and then some.  We have come to know each other fairly well and I even jokingly call him my big brother from time to time.  The joke is funnier when you know that I am a “pagan” Andean Native from Venezuela  and he is a German Catholic.  He is a good man who, like many of our military personnel, experienced things that we as civilians will never experience nor understand.  John and I both have PTSD and every once in a while we even talk about it.

John comes from a family of men who have served in various military branches.  His father served as an air force pilot, but not just any pilot.  He was one of the top pilots in the country and every couple of years when a new plane came out he would study, train and pass the exam to fly the new aircraft.  John’s brother served in the army just like him but they had different careers within that branch.  John started his career as an Artillery Meteorologist but spent most of his career there after as an M240B gunner.  They are called “Smoke” in the army.  He also served as an air traffic controller during his career.

From time to time John and I will keep each other company and chat over a beer after our kitchen shift.  It’s a chance to decompress and come down from the adrenaline rush of dinner service.  He quickly found out that as an Army Brat I actually know some of the military terminology and he could talk to me about some things that he simply can’t with others, not even his wife.  Now to be clear, John’s wife is amazing, this is not a shaming moment of a spouse.  It’s a difference of life experience.  She did not come from a military working class family, John and I did.  We also both have PTSD.  Those three life experiences are what drew John and I to be friend outside of the dinner shift.  We understand the large pieces of each others lives while most others do not and when you find someone on the same page as you you are grateful.  

One night we tried different bar just across the street from our own kitchen and I asked if he would mind sharing some more details of his experiences in Afghanistan.  He told me about the 18 hour missions, the sleep deprivation and how it affects him now as a civilian.  He and his team coped with a dark sense of humor, not at all uncommon under the circumstances.

They would make bets on who was going to die first before they started their mission.  John would say, “I’ll be the first one to go today, I’ve gotten this far and I’m still alive so today is the day my time runs out.”  Another man would say, “No way!  Based on my position in the caravan I’ll be the guy who gets his head blown off!”  And it would continue like that one team member at a time and they would start their mission.

John recalled a time when his team had completed their mission and another team was geared up and ready to relieve them.  The men were ready for their break as some were heading back state side while others were to remain in country but were being relieved until their next mission.  When a commanding officer approached John and another team member that they needed to go right back out with the relief team they clearly were not excited for two back to back missions.  That’s when the darkness circled back but it was no longer humorous.  John and his buddy looked at each other and reluctantly followed orders.  As a Smoke, he was standing in the tank operating the gun but was strapped into a harness, John called this his ‘sex harness’ because of how it looked.  The harness would keep him in place in the event of a roll.  With out even looking at me he told me, “When we were ordered to go back out with the relief team I decided this is it.  I got into my sex harness and accepted that I wasn’t going home…This is it…This is going to be the day I die.  I wasn’t suppose to be there.  I was suppose to be relieved with the rest of my team but instead they sent me and another guy back out.  This is the day I die.”

I’ve heard stories like this before.  These folks know how dangerous their job is and make peace or pray to their God or otherwise cope with the fact they they will likely be injured or die.  We all cope in various ways and we are all coping for different reasons but what our military personnel experiences is something that no civilian ever will nor need to learn how to cope and for that I will always have a soft spot for those in uniform.

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While I’m not in the habit of recommending television and movies as a reference for learning about PTSD, I have admittedly come across a few productions that are fairly accurate.  You’re The Worst, was actually recommended to me by a friend in Tennessee who is a physician and did rotations at the VA during internship and residency.  While she does not work for the VA nor specializes in PTSD cases, she does remember some very powerful moments during her education there.  The episode she specified as particularly pertinent to me and my writing about PTSD in an effort to spread awareness on the subject was episode number five from season three entitled “Twenty-Two.”  For those not aware, twenty-two is the number of veterans who commit suicide daily.  In this television series, Edgar, played by Desmind Borges, is increasingly struggling with PTSD due to his time in the military.

While his PTSD is a part of the series, this particular episode revolves round him and what a single day is like for someone living with PTSD.  Something else I’m not in the habit of doing is admitting to crying, but folks, I cried during this episode because every bit of it made sense.  While PTSD varies from case to case, the broad strokes of it still resonated with me and some of his coping tools in the episode and coping tools discussed between him and a supporting character are things that I have done to cope as well.  Again, more on coping before the end of the month.

To give you a quick synopsis of a day in the life of PTSD for Edgar, the episode starts with him not being able to sleep.  He eventually gets up and starts dancing to the music playing in his headphones.  He tries to go to sleep after that but it doesn’t happen so he puts on his music again and goes for a run until he encounters a car that comes to a screeching halt and a young man runs out of the car.  You can tell Edgar’s training and triggers kick in because he runs behind a car and moves from one to another, getting closer to the danger ahead.  When the car drives past him and a newspaper is thrown out of the window at his feet both he and the viewer realize that someone is just delivering newspapers, there was never any danger.

Edgar has other triggers.  Bags of garbage on the side of the road are potentially IED’s (Improvised Explosive Device), people in a grocery store looking at him are tracking his movements because they are part of the enemy force, the person tailgating in the car behind him is part of a surveillance operation, a worker in the bucket of a boom-type powered elevating work platform is a sniper, and the list goes on.  

John shared with me that when he came back to Colorado on leave he had a very difficult time walking downtown because he was doing threat assessments in his mind for all of the buildings surrounding him.  While his threat assessments are based in military training, I have my own threat assessment process based on my assault during the Summer of 2017.  When men walk past me, especially behind me, my body tenses, my breathing slows to a near halt and I am ready to fight and defend myself or run to safety.  There is no prejudice as to the race or ethnicity of men who cause this reaction, it’s any man, not just the ethnicity of the man who assaulted me.

Edgar went for a run in the middle of the night to help him sleep.  A few months after my assault my insomnia worsened and I didn’t sleep for several days.  I kept going to the gym in the middle of the night in an attempt to exhaust myself into sleep but it barely worked.  To be honest, I was going through another round of, “I’m afraid to sleep,” so even though I was barely functioning at least I wasn’t having nightmares those nights.  

PTSD is a complicated, misunderstood and often mishandled dis-ease that it requires so much more education and awareness than what is typically available.  If you have PTSD, as difficult as it is, I urge you to advocate for yourself.  If you know someone with PTSD, as awkward as it is, I urge you to listen to your friend or family member.  Reach out by giving them a call, sending a text, taking them out for coffee.  You don’t have to say, “So how’s that PTSD going?  I hear it’s a real bitch!” But just the act of being there means more than that person is often able to say.  Below are a few repeat resources and a new resource.  Until next week my dears, remember to be good to yourself and to one another.  It’s what makes us human.

The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.

Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story by Mac McClelland

Colorado Crisis Services: 1-844-493-8255

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK(8255)

PTSD Awareness Series: Part Two

Welcome back 4D supporters for the second week of PTSD Awareness Month.  Part two of the series includes information from two healers in the Denver area that I have come to know fairly well.  Aubry and and Audrey, no I’m not making this up, are both committed to helping people heal by giving them the tools to do so.  Aubry recently graduated from Metro State University with a Bachelors of Art Degree in Psychology while Audrey is a highly trained licensed massage therapist (LMT) at Peace of Mind Massage in the Wash Park neighborhood of Denver.  Both of these women focus on the holistic side if treatment and empowerment when it comes to their client’s well being.

Aubry was kind enough to talk to me over coffee one morning and she provided really great information for Alpaca Roaming readers (that’s you!) and even gave me insight into something that had confused me for years about my own PTSD.  For those who might still be fuzzy on this, the condition of PTSD occurs when a trauma peaks your survival instincts but rather than processing through the event mentally and physically the process gets interrupted and the result is some level of PTSD.  This is a generic and novice explanation of the more complicated process that takes place but I want to provide a simple base line for you all.  When trauma occurs and we do not process through it all the way the trauma gets stuck, so to speak, and our brains have essentially been rewired.  For those familiar with war veterans sustaining a TBI (traumatic brain injury) PTSD and a TBI are not one in the same.  The TBI is a physical injury while PTSD is a mental injury.

There are several ways to develop PTSD.  I touched on this briefly in the first article but to elaborate, journalists have developed PTSD covering war torn parts of the world or places that have been decimated by natural disasters that have resulted in people doing desperate things to survive.  There are also people in these already tragic instances who committed crimes because they knew they could get away with it when officials were throwing all of their resources else where.  Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story by Mac McClelland is a prime example.  It’s an interesting read and I applaud her ability and courage to write in such detail about her experiences but it can be a tough read.  It’s a fantastic book but I have to take it in piece by piece.  It is not a nightstand before bed type of book.  Other traumas include but certainly are not limited military service, rape and other sexual assault, physical assault, verbal, mental and emotional abuses, natural disasters, car accident, mugging etc…  Even witnessing the life threatening event of another person can leave someone with PTSD. 

Aubry also gave me some insight into factors that could predispose a person to PTSD.  As clinical as some of it was, she broke it down in a way that non-clinicians would be able to better understand that sometimes there is more to trauma then the event itself.  Aubry explained to me The Theories of Diagnosing Personality Types and how certain personality types are more prone to PTSD than others.  Example one is an insecure attachment style.  This is when a person is co-dependent on others and more susceptible to having life changing events occur in their life.  Example two is a lack of solid childhood foundation.  The lack of love and support growing up could lead to issues with behavior, learning, emotional stability and more.  I count myself lucky that my parents adopted me when I was only nine weeks old from waring Venezuela. I have my quirks but not feeling loved by my family has never been one of them.  Example three is genetics.  This is one that most people never consider.  Genes that predispose someone to reacting to trauma can lead to PTSD and even co-morbidity.  Co-morbidity is the presence of two or more illnesses or disorders in one person.  Environment can activate trauma genes that lay dormant until there is an incident that triggers it.  Aubry continued on to say that often treatment of one ailment leads to having to treat another ailment.  It’s like cutting off the serpent’s head and another one or two appearing.  It’s a vicious cycle.

One of the biggest take aways that Aubry shared with me is her outlook on what her and other therapists duties are to their clients.  “As therapists, the thing we need to understand is that we’re not here to fix you but rather here to give you the tools to fix yourself.”  As someone who chooses holistic tools for healing, this truly resonated with me and I appreciate her willingness to share her education, insights and personal stories. She too is a major advocate of holistic healing practices when appropriate.

Speaking of holistic healing, Audrey the LMT who is the second healer kind enough to take part in this series shared some amazing information in our interview as well.  First and foremost, Audrey is one of the most skilled, educated and intuitive body workers I have ever encountered.  She has been practicing massage therapy for eleven years, ever since she was earning her degree in economics and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.  From Pittsburgh she practiced full time for about six years in Miami until landing at Peace of Mind in Denver, Colorado in 2017.  When I asked her what led her to massage therapy her answer made me smile and honestly melt just a little bit.  She has a brother who has special needs so she grew up, “[…] immersed in a community where focusing on helping others was the norm, so whatever career I chose was going to have that as a central element. Massage therapy turned out to be the career that let me improve people’s quality of life most profoundly while maintaining my own physical and mental health. Hospitals, NGO’s, bureaucracies, etc. are inherently stressful; massage therapy is uplifting…no contest.”

Out of my own personal curiosity I asked her what the mix of male vs. female clients with PTSD was and if she knew enough of their stories to be able to tell me what the nature of their traumas may have been (i.e. military service, assault, abuse etc…)  When she answered that more female clients have PTSD than male it was not a surprise.  The simple fact that a higher rate of physical and sexual assaults exist for women than men makes the risk of PTSD higher for women.  What I was not expecting was that the number of clients who have served in the military are evenly split between men and women and Audrey made a good point about what actually led to their PTSD.    “Almost everyone I’ve worked with who’s served in the military has some level of PTSD; some from combat, many from the cultural stressors—which do often include verbal and emotional abuse—combined with the physical rigors of their duties.”  She also made it a point to share with me that most of her clients with trauma histories do not actually self-identify with having PTSD, but more on military veterans with PTSD before the end of the month.

I also wanted to know if Audrey could pin point any similarities between PTSD clients.  Clinicians often say that no two cases are alike, that the triggers are different, the reactions are different etc… but that there are broad similarities.  “Lack of autonomy seems to be the underlying issue that draws trauma from being part of someone’s past into their present. Not having control during traumatic experiences and then having their self-determination undermined thereafter by their symptoms makes people especially sensitive to any external factors that threaten their sense of control.”

I can personally attest to this.  While I am the person you want around in a crisis because I act like a special forces team member and make sure that everyone is alright no matter what I have to do, there are little things that wouldn’t bother anyone else but they make me melt down.  In part, it is that I have already gone through extraordinary measures to keep certain people in my life safe and cared for so I sometimes do not have the reserves to  handle minor situations.

Another factor is exactly what Audrey touched on in our interview.  I had no control over the traumatic circumstances that I either endured or witnessed but rather could only do damage control.  When things seem out of my control in my life my mind starts to melt down.  Sometimes I can manage it and other times I have to feel the awfulness and wait for it to pass and then move on.  People don’t understand how I could be perfectly fine moving across the country to a city I didn’t know all by myself and the answer is simple.  I chose that path.  I chose to leave Milwaukee because my past life was just that, in the past and I was determined to make a new life.  I chose that path, I planned it out, I orchestrated the move, I secured an apartment before arriving in Denver and I secured a job transfer with my company at the time.  There were no major uncertainties before I loaded my Subaru, opened the back door for Nero to hop in, and took off for the Mountain West.  I had a plan, I executed that plan and that plan worked.  Show me a television episode where someone tries to or successfully ends their life by taking a blade to their wrists and I’m curled up on the couch crying and I can’t move.  See the difference?

Education plays a significant role for both the healer and the client.  Audrey has significantly diversified her skills.  She has training in multiple styles of bodywork, is familiar with corrective exercises and self-care techniques (i.e foam rolling, stretching etc…), has researched behavioral economics and mood disorders and even worked as a nursing assistant in a psychiatric hospital which gave her, “[…] a wider context to understand how trauma impacts someone’s quality of life and the barriers and challenges they encounter.”  

Educating her clients about bodywork is another part of how she helps clients take control of their own healthcare.  A prime example is the confusion surrounding the term “myofascial release.” For her purposes as a massage therapist, myofascial release is a gentle technique that, “[…] focuses on healing on an emotional as well as physical level, and is taught by John Barnes or someone trained by him.  However, a lot of therapists are using the term ‘myofascial release’ to describe other types of bodywork, like structural integration, rolfing, trigger point therapy, and myofascial techniques, that focus on structurally manipulating the fascia to break up physical restrictions, can use a lot of force, and don’t address emotional healing or trauma.”  To drive home the point, if you are specifically interested in myofascial release therapy, you must find a therapist who trained with John Barnes or one of his instructors.

In relation to education and information, I asked Audrey if she found a certain amount of information beneficial when helping her clients.  Her reply was that, “There’s no such thing as too much information.  Even if someone just said, ‘I have a history of trauma.’ or ‘I have PTSD.’ and nothing else, it gives me valuable understanding to make any treatment more effective.”  I have personally experienced this shift with Audrey.  Something may hurt on me physically and I don’t know why and it could turn out to be that I pushed myself too hard at the gym so my hip pain is actually caused by my knee pain.  Conversely, my shoulder pain might not be from weight lifting but actually a protective holding pattern from my date assaulting me last Summer as the right side of my body took the brunt of the assault.  While Audrey never expects a client’s life story, the little comments all the way to the life story helps her create a completely tailored treatment specific to that person for the best healing process possible and that is not something a client easily finds.

As we started to wrap up the interviewer I asked Audrey how working with PTSD clients effected her and she simply said, “I feel inspired when I’m working with PTSD clients. All the time, I see people show amazing courage as they allow themselves to feel emotions they’ve been protecting themselves from and let go of old beliefs and fears that were hindering their quality of life.”

I sincerely hope the information these two ladies shared was of interest and more importantly helpful whether you are coping with PTSD symptoms yourself, know someone else who is or even just didn’t know about PTSD in general now you do.  If you are looking for a couple of good books concerning information on PTSD, trauma and holistic healing, I have read and revisit the two titles listed below from time to time.  Yoga and meditation has helped me immensely over the past two+ years and there are other great resources out there, these are just two books that I find insightful and helpful.  I encourage you to find what works best for you.  Until next time, be good to yourself and others.  Remember, we’re all human.

Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine

Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson

PTSD Awareness Series: Part One

Calm down.  Be quiet.  Settle down.  What’s wrong with you?  Suck it up.  Deal with it.  Just be normal.  These are only a few phrases that those living with PTSD hear both from others as well as within their own minds.  But before I get too far into what it is like to live with PSTD allow me to give you a brief introduction to what you will see from Alpaca Roaming for the rest of the month.

June 27th is National PTSD Awareness Day as designated by the US Senate in 2010.  In 2014 the Senate declared all of June as PTSD Awareness Month.  Although there is an increasing amount of information on PTSD there are still a great deal of misconceptions and gaps in the information chain for those not living with this complicated and misunderstood dis-ease.  Why do I type “dis-ease” instead of “disease”?  Because for me, while PTSD is a diagnosable clinical disease, the feeling of dis-ease is what makes PTSD so painful.  A flashback to the trauma, reoccurring trauma, multiple traumas, triggers, hijacking all come with a feeling of dis-ease in varying intensities.  This is why Alpaca Roaming is dedicating the month of June to PTSD awareness with stories from military veterans, health care providers and even a few personal stories.

In this series I have decided to take the lead and offer a portion of my experiences first.  First of all, trauma can happen for a multitude of reasons ranging from military service to assault and abuse to natural disasters and more.  I start with this because I have a PTSD service dog that I trained myself.  He naturally has a calm temperament and I noticed that when I triggered, after separating from my now ex-husband, he would lay down on top of me like he was protecting me.  He acted like a compression blanket for anxiety and that’s when I started researching the ability to train my own dog in a working capacity.  I am not 100% dependent on him but when we go out in public people practically melt just looking into those liquid eyes and then I am asked in which military branch I served… Well, I tell them, “I didn’t serve, I just married the wrong man.”  Some people thank me for my service and I say, “I’ll pass your thanks along to my father who did serve.”

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Nero watching my 6 as we take a coffee break

These people are not doing anything wrong.  PTSD wasn’t as readily diagnosed until the 1980’s and PTSD awareness started with the military community so naturally people assume I am a  veteran based on my dog wearing a “PTSD Dog” harness.  Better and more information needs to be circulated to the public.  Military veterans living with PTSD and the 22 awareness movement are common knowledge but what do people really know about traumas?

I spoke with a young woman named Garilyn I met last November who recently graduated from Navajo Technical University in New Mexico about her PTSD symptoms.  She suffered a fractured neck and a tear in the major artery in her neck in addition to other injuries sustained during a severe car accident nearly four years ago.  She was paralyzed for months and spent two years in physical rehabilitation to regain full range of motion in her arm as well as relearning how to walk.  Her PTSD mostly manifests in the form of flashbacks and anxiety about driving or riding in a car but told me that she tries to overcome that and continues to live her life.  She attributes a great deal of her ability to recover to her supportive family.  I too am lucky to have a supportive family.  They may not understand a lot of the idiosyncrasies that I share with them but I know they are always there for me and that counts for more than I could ever express.  

About five years ago I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD.  Some of the criteria that makes for this type of diagnosis are repeat trauma and multiple traumas.  A straight diagnosis of PTSD is often a result of a single traumatic experience such as a natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina), severe car accident, single rape crime and more.  I initially thought that my PTSD was due to one awful incident and the stress of other “minor” incidents were what made my PTSD more complex.  As I worked to unpack what happened other memories or stories told to me by family members turned out to play a role in some of my triggers, and coincidentally, some of my coping tools.

I was born in Caracas Venezuela during a time that the country was at war with itself politically.  My parents adopted me when I was just nine weeks old but in those nine weeks of life I was in an orphanage.  During that time for every child, very important developmental teachings are being solidified in the mind and body.  Fast forward a few months to my fathers orders coming down to move and the result was the three of us living in politically unsettled El Salvador.  My mother tells me that she would sing me to sleep with “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” while we could hear bombs and gunfire way off in the distance.  It wasn’t close but we could still hear it.

Where am I going with this story you ask?  Well, after separating from my ex husband my sleep issues continued but one night I fell asleep watching Archer.  I had just started watching it because so many people I worked with raved about it’s hilarity.  It was late and once again I couldn’t sleep but this one night I drifted off during a major battle scene in the episode.  While gun fire that is not anticipated has made me hit the deck in an instant, this episode of Archer full of gunfire and explosions actually lulled me to sleep!  It was like white noise.  It took me a while to understand it but basically there is a part of my brain and nervous system that is two years old knowing that I am safe with my parents in our home in El Salvador and these noises in a television program or movie aren’t a threat so they can sometimes be the white noise I need to fall asleep.  

Conversely, my body has gone rigid and my heart beat quickens when a car with a bad muffler goes by or a noisy motorcycle speeds by me while I sit on the patio of a coffee shop.  Someone slamming the ice machine door shut in the restaurant has started me numerous times.  The sudden loud noise shocks my nervous system to an extent but the feeling quickly subsides.  These are things that did not bother me before the damage of my marriage but certain triggers that were lying dormant were activated from my experiences in that marriage.  This is an example of what has led to my Complex PTSD.

I mention repeat traumas or multiple traumas because unfortunately, there are many people who have endured one or both of these.  For me, the trauma of watching a severely depressed husband attempt to give up on life, self harm and self medicate was very difficult.  At the time, we lived multiple states away from any friends or family who could be a support system so I decided that as a committed wife, it was my responsibility to do everything to take care of him and help him get well.  That meant working doubles five days a week in a restaurant, caring for two dogs, a three bedroom rental house and literally keeping him alive.  

That life style took it’s toll to say the least.  Over the next three years I endured mental, emotional and verbal abuse from him.  We filed for divorce, I moved across the country to start over again including starting my own business.  When I decided that part of starting over meant dating again I was assaulted by my date.  I stopped dating for several months and in that time I had to leave a job that was stable and that I liked because the new chef couldn’t stop putting his hands on me.  Layers of trauma leads to complex PTSD…

I take the time to share the cliff notes version of my experiences not to make myself feel better or to seek attention but rather to bring attention and awareness to the complexities of PTSD.  After five years of accepting and learning how to manage my symptoms (side note that this will be a life long learning experience) I am just now publicly speaking about my diagnosis and this issue as a whole.  My hope in this mini series of articles is that 1) PTSD awareness is taken more seriously 2) Better and more information keeps being published about this dis-ease 3) Someone or many someones read these articles and comes one step closer to realizing that they are not alone and one step closer to seeking help if they are not seeking it already.

Please, if you or someone you know is suffering with PTSD, anxiety, depression etc… and you feel that you need help I urge you to take a step in that direction.  Send a text or call your most trusted friend or family member.  Call a crisis help line.  Listed below are a couple of numbers but there are so many more both locally, regionally and nationally.  Maybe you don’t call right away but at least store the number in your phone or carry it with you on a notecard just in case you have that one really awful day or night and you don’t think you can take anymore.  Call the number.  Until next week, take care of yourselves.  Show yourself and others patience, compassion and empathy.  It is what makes us human after all.

Colorado Crisis Services: 1-844-493-8255

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK(8255)

An Appetite For Memory:  Family Traditions In A Melting Pot

Welcome back Alpaca Roamers for the final story in the Appetite for Memory mini series.  Friends and family have shared their stories with us over the past few months but today it is time for me to share my fondest food memory, Christmas.  I have been writing this blog post in my head for months but it hasn’t made it to my MacBook until today.  It just hasn’t felt like Winter nor the holiday season for me yet but this morning I got that familiar feeling.  My dreading the holiday melted away and nostalgia took over.  The comforting feeling of knowing I would see my family just days into the new year, knowing that the bakery boxes I made for friends have been delivered or are en route, the Winter Solstice and the fact that snow is finally falling here in the foothills is giving me, “all the feels,” as they say.  So with my coffee, fur buddy and Christmas music streaming I offer you the final food memory story of 2017.

I am adopted which makes my parents super heroes in my book and in a country called “The Melting Pot” our own little family is it’s own melting pot.  My mother is Polish, my father is Scottish and English and then there’s me, their tall, brown Andean Venezuelan daughter.  So you may wonder what Christmas looked like in our house during my child hood.  Well, it starts with stringing up the lights in and outside of our suburban Ohio home, continues with setting up the tree as a family, cookie baking, my aunt driving in from New York and then it was Christmas Eve.  On this night Mom and I would prepare lasagna, because she passed on her love of Italian food to me.  We would make a few side dishes, dessert and then the four of us would eat by candle light.  We would talk, laugh, enjoy the food and each others company.  I have no idea when or how our lasagna tradition began but after doing it one year it stuck and it has been that way ever since.  To this day I still make lasagna for myself on Christmas Eve no matter what shift I work.  I prepare my own version of it in adulthood but the basic principle is there and of course the nostalgia.

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Handmade clay ornament from the Ecuadorian countryside.

Christmas day holds another tradition for our family.  At some point during my middle school years my father and I started watching Emeril Live on Food Network before it expanded into what it is today.  It was our Father Daughter time and we actually made some of the recipes that intrigued us from the show.  One such recipe was waffles with banana pecan maple syrup.  One year, we decided we would make it for Christmas breakfast.  My father had been making waffles for my mother and me for years; it was a simple Oster recipe that came with their blender nearly forty years ago.  When we added Emeril’s banana pecan maple syrup it made the dish even more special and so that became our Christmas morning tradition.  Mom and my aunt would relax in the living room while Dad and I made waffles and syrup for the family.  It was one of a handful of recipes we made together and that too is a tradition that I maintain to this day.

I have never changed the waffle and syrup recipes from my childhood but from time to time my chef brain wants to develop new recipes with a Native riff on my food memories.  Being I have relocated to Colorado and am in blue corn territory I wanted to develop a blue corn waffle that everyone could enjoy, gluten free and vegan diet followers included.  While I am not 100% satisfied with my recipe yet (but very close!)  I do want to offer both the recipes from my childhood as well as the Bow and Arrow recipe for their blue raspberry waffles.  Their corn products are excellent, they offer bulk rates and discounted shipping on orders of a certain size.

As I watch the snow fall and peek at my snoozing dog companion I reflect on the journey that is both behind me and ahead of me.  I sincerely hope these stories have peaked your interest in food, food memories and inspire you to perhaps begin new or pick up old food traditions of your own.  Whatever and however you celebrate this time of year, I wish you happiness, good company and of course good food!

~Feliz Navidad, próspero Año Nuevo y buen provecho

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***Note: Four Directions Cuisine LLC has not received any free products in exchange for promoting Bow and Arrow Foods.

An Appetite for Memory: We Are Norwegians at Christmastime

Welcome back Alpaca Roamers!  The November An Appetite for Memory story comes from my friend and Food Symposium colleague Anna Sigrithur.  She is all around my favorite Canadian and I love her sharp mind and dedication to food sovereignty, story telling, environmental responsibility and adventuring.  Anna has an intriguing cultural background of Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic and a sprinkling of UK.  On her Mother’s side, there is some Sami ancestry which are the Indigenous people of Northern Scandinavia.  Many people do not realize there are Indigenous communities in that part of the world and while the language, culture and traditions are very different in ways, it is still an ancient Indigenous culture that exists and should be recognized.

With that being said, Anna does not claim to have strong Sami bloodlines but she is actively researching the genealogy for Sami ancestry in her family.  Being the self educating curious minded woman that she is, she spent two Summers in a Sirges Sami community in Saltoluokta, Sweden with a Sami knowledge keeper.  There, she learned about Sami traditional foods, listened to stories and truly learned, “…how much capitalism [and] colonialism have affected Indigenous communities and their food sovereignty even in Europe, where we don’t think of those things as much.”

At the end of the day, Anna encourages, “…people to explore the land around them and its history, exploring the food traditions of their ancestors and learning those histories as well [as] learning to understand how drastically our ecological systems are changing in the face of climate change and globalization. [Furthermore] learning to cook and share food that nourishes the body, gives justice to the community and works in harmony with the earth!”  With that, I hope you enjoy Anna’s fun and quirky family story of a Norwegian Christmas.

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We are Norwegians at Christmastime

So the thing is, I didn’t really grow up eating many foods that I’d be proud to remember here now: My father was hardly ever home, working long shifts at the hospital, and my mother is a feminist born in the 1950s which tended to mean that she felt it her political right (and I agree with her) to not do unpaid cooking labour for the family, especially since she hated cooking. So we ate a lot of tinned soups, boiled no name spaghetti and pre-fab tomato sauce, kraft dinner, baked beans, hot dogs, and, peculiarly sometimes she’d allow us to have simple stove-top kettle popped pop corn with butter for dinner.

And this was true for all days of the year save for one: Christmas. Christmas was one time of year however that my mother’s political strike from all things domestic seemed to wane and was eclipsed instead by a folksy kind of reverence for all kinds of laborious hands-on cooking tasks. Because below that red blooded modern American feminist, my mother is a traditionalist at heart when it comes to her Norwegian and Swedish heritage. Normally, this passion comes out in the form of slightly screetchy fiddle playing, or going to Ikea to paint wooden horses with her octogenarian friends from the Cultural Centre. But at Christmas, she becomes the very embodiment of a Norwegian farm wife, performing with gusto the dual holy rites of cooking huge family meals and then spending the entire duration of the meal vocally disapproving of her own cooking. My father, sister and I usually sit in silence and let her carry on with it, interjecting sometimes to say, “Mum, it’s not terrible at all!” or “Martha, it’s tasty for goodness sakes” but she pays us little mind.  The truth is, the food really wasn’t very good, but it always tasted pretty good to me. It tasted like Christmas, which is probably because we ate the same thing every year, and so I guess that’s how memories and traditions and things like that are created.

Now, I want to tell you about my favourite food, but first a little context. Norwegian and Swedish dishes, like many European dishes, are meat and potato based. You have your köttbular (meat balls) cooked in gräddesås (cream sauce) and served over kertofflar (mashed potatoes). You have your lingonsås (lingonberry sauce) which is like cranberry sauce- a tart red berry cooked in sugar and eaten as a foil to meat. You will definitely have some steamed or butter-baked parsnips and turnips and then usually there is a bowl of pickled herring on the table. But by far my favourite, and perhaps the most unique and sophisticated to make is a delicate little tortilla-like thing called a lefse (pronounced LEFF-suh). Lefse is a Norwegian soft potato flatbread, made with potatoes, rye flour, salt, milk and butter and requires the hands of an angel (or an 89 year old woman named Helga) to coax into a dough that will melt in your mouth yet stand up to rolling and cooking. Lefse begins with boiled whole potatoes (boiled whole so as to let a minimum of water soak into the potato), which are then cooled, riced using a potato ricer, and then mixed with the remaining ingredients into a stiff but soft dough. The lefse dough is then rolled into circles using a rolling pin covered in waffleweave cotton to about 1/8” thickness and about 18” in diameter. It is then cooked on a device called a lefse griddle, which is a real thing, even though it sounds so ridiculously specific that it could never be a real thing. But go visit Moorhead, MN. You’ll see them for sale there! You turn the lefse using a wooden lefse paddle (a long, flattened stick that bears the burn marks of decades of patient flipping), and when it’s done, you let it cool as long as you can before caving to the desire to stuff it into your mouth.

We eat it usually with spiced cheese and herring or use it to mop up the sauce from the meatballs. The texture is divine. Like the most tender, potatoey tasting tortilla, and the waffleweave on the rolling pin leaves a fine texture on the surface, and it is usually dusted with flour and kind of dry and cool to the lips. Needless to say, such culinary wizardry could not be executed by my mother alone. Thankfully, lefse is still made communally— by women who get together in the basement of a church, or at the Scandinavian cultural centre, and peel, boil and rice the potatoes expertly and make hundreds if not thousands of lefses in one day, to be sold for painfully reasonable prices at the Christmas market. My mother dutifully goes each year to the lefse bee. She comes into the fluorescent-lit church kitchen and stands at the table strewn with flecks of potato and dough with the old ladies, and rices the potatoes with them. She probably makes the lumpier lefses that the old ladies then have to politely disperse among the packets of their expert product and in doing so, my mother lets herself be both a kitchen hating feminist and someone who loves her culture enough to stand up for it, cook for it, and by golly, cook badly for it too.

And now that my story is finished, here is a classic “Ole and Lena joke” about an imaginary stereotypical Norwegian-American couple:

Ole is on his deathbed. One day he smells the smell of fresh lefse coming from downstairs. So he summons up the last of his strength and drags himself downstairs. He’s at the table reaching for the lefse when Lena slaps his hand and says, “Ole, that’s for after the funeral.”

 

Autumn Weather Brings Squash Dinner

Hello 4D supporters and foodies alike!  I have been working on various projects but I did not want October to end with out sharing a new recipe, hooray!  Autumn is easily my favorite time of year for many reasons including, but not limited, to Iliza Schlesinger’s bit on Fall in her Freezing Hot special on Netflix.  For starters, sweater weather means I get to wear my favorite navy blue cardigan once I leave the kitchen for the day and while I am in the kitchen I get to work with the best harvest of the year in my humble opinion.  That’s right folks, it’s time for squash everything.

Squash of course goes beyond pumpkins and it is no secret that this is one of the most important crops for Native Americans.  For those of you who do not know, “Three Sisters” refers to our crop trifecta of squash, beans and corn.  There are variations on the creation story from tribe to tribe but I encourage you to read the Oneida’s story.  Oneida was the first nation I visited when I began my path as a Native chef.  The people who shared their stories, knowledge and offered their help will always hold a special place with me, particularly my late friend Jeff Metoxen.

In terms of farming, there is an advantage to growing these three crops together.  When planted together, often called companion planting, the corn stalk provides structure for which the beans climb up eliminating the need to purchase or make poles.  Squash grows in a sprawling manner over the ground blocking the sun which reduces the growth of weeds.  Our ancestors were very intelligent and in tune with the natural world.

Now that you have a little back story and some fun information I’ll get to the recipe.  I eat just about anything so I did use ground turkey for this original recipe.  For those of you who do not eat animal protein but do not want to lose out on protein, quinoa is an easy substitute.  It is one of the most prominent ancient grains to the people of the Andes Mountains and is very high in protein making it an excellent ingredient for vegetarians and vegans.  When I want to lighten up my diet I utilize quinoa and don’t miss the meat at all.  I encourage you to not only try this recipe but maybe even email me and tell me how it worked out for you.

An Apetite For Memory mini series will resume in November with a few special holiday stories.  Until then I hope you all continue, or maybe even start, cooking and enjoy your own journey through food.

~Buen Provecho

Calabazas Rellenas aka Stuffed Squash

Ground turkey                                               1#

Vegetable stock                                              1 C

Yellow onion, diced                                       8oz (1 medium)

Garlic, minced                                                3 cloves

Jalapeño, minced                                           1 each

Red bell pepper, seeded, diced                   6oz (1 large)

Red kale, spines removed, ribbon cut      4oz (1/2 bunch)

Crimini mushroom, stemmed, sliced       8oz

Sea salt                                                            to taste

Fresh ground black pepper                        to taste

Ground cumin                                              2 tsp

Arbol chili powder                                       1Tbsp

Mexican oregano                                          1Tbsp

Sunflower or olive oil                                 6Tbsp – divided use

Acorn squash                                               2 each

Method:

  1. Start preheating the oven to 350 degrees.  Heat 2 tablespoons of oil of your choice in a 10” pan or larger. Season the turkey with cumin, chili powder, oregano, sea salt and brown over high heat.  Once browned, add the stock and simmer over medium-low heat.  This will keep the turkey moist and flavorful.  Once the stock is absorbed, set aside.
  2. Heat 2 more tablespoons of oil over medium high heat and sauté onions, garlic, bell pepper, jalapeño and mushrooms.  Once these vegetables have started to soften, about three minutes, add the kale and continue to cook another two minutes.  Lightly season with sea salt.
  3. Combine the vegetables with turkey at this point and start to prepare the squash.  Cut off a very little bit of the top and bottom of the acorn squash, or another varietal of your choosing, to make it level.  Next cut the squash in half horizontally to expose the seeds.  Scoop out the seeds and save them.  You can wash, dry and roast them with whatever seasonings you like for a snack or garnish for your finished dish.

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4. Once you have created a well in the center of the squash halves, rub the insides with another 2 tablespoons of oil and lightly season with sea salt and pepper.  MOUND your turkey vegetable filling into the squash halves.  There will likely be a little extra but when has that ever been a problem?  It just means there is more for taste testing!

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5. Wrap the tops of the squash halves with aluminum foil so that is comes down the sides.  You do not have to wrap it all around to cover the bottom but do grease the sheet pan.  Bake covered in the oven for 80 minutes or until the squash is fork tender.

Substitution Note:

If you are making the vegetarian version, boil one cup of quinoa in two cups of water or vegetable stock.  This should yield a scant two cups once cooked.  Mix in with the sautéed vegetables in step 3.

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An Appetite For Memory: Polish Americans in New York

Memories and emotions go hand in hand.  I believe that is why we have such vivid memories depending on the emotions we are feeling at the time.  Do you remember your great Aunt June Bug’s coconut cake at Easter every single year with out fail while you were growing up?  Do you remember the first year you couldn’t be with her for Easter and you attempted to make her coconut cake and failed?  This is a food memory and me being the all things food junkie that I am, I will be continuing this mini series with stories from my mother’s side of the family .

If you’ll remember from my Home page I am adopted.  My mother’s family is Polish and I catch up with my Aunt Carolyn nearly every week.  We are very close even though we live far apart.  I grew up seeing her the most in my family between her visits to Ohio every Christmas and Spring plus my parents, the dog and I would drive out to Long Island in the Summer.  To be clear, my family did not consist of wealthy New York City slickers.  The Musnicki family worked for the wealthy or farmed.  My grandfather Anthony Musnicki, I called him Papi, was a first generation American potato farmer.  In those days, part of Long Island was occupied by the very wealthy and the other by farmers.

My mother and aunt have told me many stories over the years including the one where my mother earned $.50 for picking two cucumbers.  She was no older than five or six but she wanted to earn money just like her older sisters.  The problem with picking cucumbers is that there are prickers on the plant and when a five year old discovers this the hard way there are inevitably tears and the refusal to keep picking.  My mothers two sisters on the other hand were old enough to know to avoid the prickers and earned a few dollars for picking an entire bushel.  This story is comical now but back then my aunts were not pleased with that circumstance.

There is an eight year gap between my mother and Carolyn so many of the food stories I heard came from Carolyn.  While she did not have a great Aunt June Bug growing up she did have an Aunt Bertha and she was the baker of the family.  Her dinner rolls at Easter and her fruit cakes at Christmas were famous within the family.  Everyone received fruit cake in December and it most certainly was not the fruit cake we think of today that has such a bad reputation.  “Getting ready for her fruit cake and dinner rolls was like a sport.” My aunt tells me.  “I don’t think she started before October but she started gathering her ingredients early.  Everyone got a fruit cake from her.  All the nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters[…]”  Many people in the family tried recreating and duplicating Aunt Bertha’s fruit cake but my late Aunt Mary Ann came the closest to doing so.

While in those days most food was made from scratch instead of all the convenience meals of our society today, Papi was particularly known for his soups and stews. About a year ago my aunt shared with me his recipe cards and a few community cook books that had other family members’ recipes in them.  I was trying to piece together memories and family stories for an ongoing project of mine and am grateful to have her as a resource.  We talked for over an hour, maybe even two about Papi and his recipe experiments.  His recipe cards are not the most detailed but they do show his personality to a degree.  There are ingredients and amounts but no directions.  Chatting with my aunt about his recipes is always entertaining because she recalls Papi saying things like, “We need the big pot…some meat…soup bones…oh yeah!  We need the instant onion soup [for a base].  It’s a big pot so just use the whole package….”  After he passed away she remembers some of the family talking and wondering why no one ever asked Papi what his process was so that they could write it down and pass it on.

 

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Papi’s recipe cards

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Community cook books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is where my strong desire for sharing history, culture and knowledge comes into play.  In every culture there are people who say, “I wish I asked [insert family member name here] how this dish was made.  No one will ever make it the same.”  There is memory, there is feeling and there is nostalgia.

I have always wanted to learn about as many cultures as possible.  I find so much knowledge, power and beauty in cultural teachings.  Perhaps it is because I have to learn about my own culture in a more creative way than most people.  Perhaps having a family that knows so much about their own culture struck a chord in me years ago and made we want to know as much as possible about my own culture.  Either way, my family is a major factor in how I live my life and cook.  I may be an Andean Native but I was raised by a Polish American mother and a Scottish/English father in rural Ohio.  I have sensory memories from Venezuela and El Salvador even though I was very young.  I have nostalgic memories about visiting White House Fruit Farm in the Fall months and taking a hay ride through the orchard, eating their perfectly made doughnuts and taking a gallon of their apple cider home to enjoy with my parents.  Even though I am a trained pastry chef turned culinary chef, I always ask my Aunt Carolyn to make a batch of minced meat cookies when I see her.  She always laughs and says, “What do you want my cookies for?  You’re a better baker than me.”  I always tell her that she’s a perfectly good baker and that those cookies are nostalgic for me so could she pretty please make them?  Every time I eat her minced meat cookies they are every bit as good as I remember.

Food memories and emotions are a powerful force.  We can honor someone by preparing food.  We can comfort someone by preparing food.  We can celebrate by preparing food.  Food really is the common thread through out humanity.  We all need it to survive but often times, whether we realize it or not, we cook through memory, emotion and care.  The mother who says, I’m not much of a cook but I make sure my children always have food, is cooking out of care.  The three Michelin star chef who prepares a 20 course meal and his or her inspiration comes from a childhood of eating at Grandmothers house, is cooking through emotion and memory.  Food is poetic.  Take a closer look at what you prepare or what other people prepare for you and challenge yourself to see the story.

~Buen provecho

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An Appetite for Memory: Jamie and Joe’s Chili

Welcome to the mini blog series, An Appetite for Memory.  As I move through this life and my career as a chef I hold certain food memories close to me while at other times my senses become triggered invoking a food memory.  I thought that if this happens to me it likely happens to others as well so I started asking friends, family and colleagues about their food memories. What followed my inquiries were several emails and phone calls of nostalgic stories that were kindly and openly shared with me that I am happy to share here.

In part, that is what this series is about, sharing stories and experiences.  Admittedly, I also want to invoke emotion and spark your own memory.  I have multiple cultural, familial and educational influences in my life which shows up in how I cook.  The countries in which I have lived and visited, my adoption, my family’s heritage, my pastry education and my life experiences have all brought me to the point at which I am and there is still an abundance of road left to travel.  I try to make it a point to recognize what I am cooking and why.  I try to make it a point to learn every single day.  I try to make it a point to heal every single day.  These are the memories that make up the journey.  If you don’t think you have any food memories, I, and these stories, are kindly here to challenge you.

For the first story of this series I talked with my friend Jamie in Wisconsin.  The food memory she shared with me is about making chili and how it connects her to her father Joe.

“My first experience making chili without him I followed the recipe… I wanted to make it exactly like his and make it very special.”  The more she made it the more she realized how easy chili really was to prepare.  She was more confident in the preparation and started adding her own little twists and adjustments.  After a few successful batches she decided to make the chili for a big Packer party with friends.  “I went shopping for the ingredients with one friend then made [the chili] at another friends house…  I remember telling everybody that it was ready and I was extremely proud of it and tooting my own horn about it.  I ended up saving little containers of it for my Mom and sisters to try.”

Joe was an avid deer hunter and typically made large batches of chili or meatballs in red sauce for his hunting group.  In honor of that, as well as the simple joy of sharing, when Jamie makes these recipes she fills containers of both and shares them with family and friends.  I was lucky enough to receive a container of meatballs and red sauce last Fall and it was wonderful.  Cooking from the heart always tastes the best.

Joe’s recipe is a loaded three meat chili which is very appropriate for Wisconsin weather and hunting excursions.  What makes his chili extra special and unique however is the recipe itself.  Jamie once shared with me that when her father was sick with a rare case of sarcoma he wrote or typed out recipes in his own fun and whimsical way.  “It could be written or  a computer paper print out but it’s the things in parenthesis  that I can see or feel his personality translated through a piece of paper.”  “…he had put funny notes in all of the recipes and every time I go shopping for chili ingredients I think about him.


One of the last parts of this food memory that Jamie shared with me was very poetic and struck me in a way I hadn’t anticipated.  Joe’s battle with cancer eventually led to the amputation of the afflicted arm from the elbow down.  Toward the end of our conversation for this piece, Jamie paused and started to talk about how despite the convenience of crock pot cooking she still prefers to make her father’s chili in a pot on her stove top.  “[There’s something] artistic about making his chili in a pot with my own two hands.  It’s like I’m making the chili in a way he wasn’t able to at the end.”

Jamie’s story, like many others, reminds us that food is so much more than fuel to sustain the body.  Food brings us together.  We find commonality with food where we might otherwise find oddities.  We can also connect to our past through food.  However food serves you enjoy it to it’s fullest and as often as possible.

~Buen provecho

Welcome!

Welcome to Alpaca Roaming.  My name is Andrea and I created this blog for many reasons.  I have had a unique life journey so far but I’m not saying that I am special.  Many of these stories are being shared in the hopes that some of my experiences, struggles and victories help others.  I am an adopted Andean Native from Venezuela and while I never thought twice about who I was or where I came from when I was younger, a life changing event brought that out when I was about 28 years old.  Suddenly, my career as a pastry chef turned into an obsessive need to cook South American and Indigenous foods which led to a career as a Native culinary chef.

I found myself in a culture that made more sense to me in a community of people whom I felt more a part of than I had previously.  I was making more social and professional connections than I had in my previous life, my life of being a good married woman.  More on that in it’s own post.  The conversations I was having about food, culture and the world in general were so stimulating I could ride the high of a single conversation for weeks.  I had found a better place, a better life for myself with out forgetting where I came from or what I had been through.

This blog is meant to be an open space to share a unique journey, much of it through food.  There will be plenty of fun food talk but there will also be very real and sometimes difficult discussions about social justice issues, food sovereignty issues, heartache, face down in the mud defeat and even overwhelming victory.  There is so much to experience in this beautifully twisted life that after shaking off the past decade I refuse to miss out on a single adventure.  So kids, are you ready to follow me down the rabbit hole?