Day 81–Cracking the Cookie Code

Chocolate chip cookie dough.

Ok, I had mixed emotions about the two-month-long cookie sale for our Girl Scout troop. I don’t love the idea of young people out peddling highly processed, sugary food when we already struggle with getting them to eat healthy. But, in the spirit of tradition (and out of fear of the Girl Scout Council), I pushed ahead, stayed positive, kept my issues to myself and we all survived. We counted cookies, set up booths, counted some more, hit up our neighbors, collected money, counted some more and then…we were done! No. More. Cookies!

Then, I received an email from Ellie’s middle school band director. The band’s booster club had chosen a fundraiser to purchase some badly needed equipment and defray the cost for the steel drum band to perform at Disney World. This fundraiser…is…wait for it…selling tubs of raw cookie dough. AAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHH. Are you kidding me?

First, let me say that I am a huge supporter of PTA’s and school arts programs, especially band programs–how cool is it that we even have a middle school steel drum band? And I am a big fan of our school’s band director–he is amazing and, for patiently teaching all those hormonally charged young people, he probably deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. I contacted the band director immediately and explained our dilemma. Did I say how awesome he is? He is awesome. I suggested that instead of purchasing a vat of cookie dough, we make a family donation to the band boosters to cover the proceeds of what we might have sold. No problem.

Except there is a problem. And that problem is called “sales incentives”. Or as the folks at Entertainment Fundraising call it: the “Extreme Fundraising Prize Pool”. The dazzling array of cheaply produced, made-in-a-sweat-shop goods had Ellie smitten. And, there is some social peer pressure involved. Those of you without children, do not judge. It’s unfathomable the frenzy these cheap prizes cause within a school. So, after a great deal of discussion, we decided to find out what is in the cookie dough, and if it didn’t seem too terrible, we would see if our neighbors wanted any. If there were unpronounceable ingredients or big health issues, we would pass. No problem.

Except there was another problem. And that problem is called “we’re not going to tell you what is in our cookie dough”. Or, as the folks at Entertainment Fundraising call it: “Secret Ingredients”.

After a fruitless online search to find ingredient lists, I called Entertainment Fundraising to see if they could email me a list of ingredients in their cookie dough. In this day of food allergies, that didn’t seem like a crazy request. I spoke with “Charles” about this at length. Our conversation went something like this:

C:   This is Charles at Entertainment Fundraising!!!! How can I help you!!!!

Me: Hi Charles, our school band is selling your tubs of cookie dough this spring…

C:  Great!!! The cookie dough is super!!!

Me:  Yes, well, I’m looking for a list of the ingredients in the different doughs, but I can’t find one online. Can you help me with this?

C:   Oh (no more exclamation points). No, we can’t give you the list of ingredients.

Me:  Um, ok, why is that?

C:   We cannot communicate with anyone except the fundraiser chairperson.

Me: Um, ok, why is that?

C:  They have the special code to download information from the website.

Me: Does this information include ingredients?

C:  Probably.

Me: But you can’t send it to me?

C:  No.

Me: And why is that?

C: Your fundraising chairperson has the special code.

Me: Hmm, well that seems odd, Charles, but I’ll try to get in touch with our fundraising chairperson…

C: Ok, great!!!! And thank YOU for supporting the children!!!

Me: Whatevs.

I thought for sure, I would never see an ingredient list. Then, this morning I received several pdf files from the band director in my email (because he is awesome). Ingredients lists! Overall, the cookie doughs use a lot of partially hydrogenated oils (which by their nature include trans fats), several different kinds of sugar including fructose and some of the cookies include parabens. Being raw cookie dough, they also include preservatives, which is not a huge surprise. I showed the list to some folks I work with and they all agreed that 1) a vat of cookie dough is, in principle, gross and 2) they were not interested in foods with such a high level of fat.

In the end, this has spurred a lot of thinking about how we talk the talk of health with our children, but we really don’t put that into practice when it counts. We tell them to make good choices, then send them out to sell poor choices to other people. As a result of all this, I have made an offer to the PTA to start a Wellness Committee of teachers, parents and students at the school, but haven’t heard back.

But for reals now, I am done with cookies…

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Day 80–First Day of Spring and Eggs Nested in Sauteed Chard

Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris) with variously col...

The first day of spring is typically celebrated with great exuberance in my house. Tom hates winter. Hates. It. He usually has a big, dramatic countdown to the first day of spring–this countdown begins shortly after we open Christmas presents. So, you understand my surprise when not only did we NOT have a countdown this year, but we were well on our way to work when he said, “Oh yeah, it’s the first day of spring!” We did a  little happy dance in the car (good that Ellie was already at school, so we were spared the eye rolling), but that was it for our celebration. The truth is, we have had spring here in NC since January. We’re not complaining, mind you, but it is a bit anticlimactic to celebrate something that arrived two months ago.

One of my favorite spring foods is swiss chard, especially the rainbow variety. Due to our hot summers, chard is usually out of the way by June, so we have to enjoy it quickly. Chard has a fresh, sweet taste that is something like a really amped up spinach. And we are absolutely ready for something other than collards and kale.

So tonight, in celebration of spring, we will have a dish that uses two fresh springtime foods–swiss chard and fresh farm eggs. This dish was shared by a friend and it looks to be healthy, fresh and easy to make. Thanks to Ben’s Produce for the organic rainbow chard and Water Oaks Farm for the fresh eggs!

This recipe is from Simply Recipes and since the recipe is not mine, I’m directing you to the original source. If I can get my food porn skills in gear, I will post photos, but the photos on the recipe site are pretty amazing, so they speak for themselves.

Happy first day of spring! Or 80th day of spring, whichever the case may be. Celebrate with something fresh and delicious today!

Day 78–Starting Week 12–Budget and Menu

I can’t believe we are beginning the third month of our family locavore challenge! This year seems to be speeding by–this is probably helped by our exceptionally warm weather. We were fortunate to start our journey during what we we call “The Year Without a Winter.” Our farmers have had an extended growing season, and I haven’t had a week yet, when I left the market empty-handed or disappointed (well, except for the “Broccoli Incident”).

So, what have we learned in 3 months? Here is a sample:

  1. Eating locally in NC is not difficult, but it does require an adjustment of behaviors.
  2. I like having a social friendship with our farmers and meat producers.
  3. Local, organic produce tastes so much better, we feel like we are being spoiled.
  4. We have been on budget–or close–for most weeks in our challenge so far.
  5. We will never go back to buying store eggs.
  6. Fresh food, cooked creatively is so good that we have dramatically cut down the number of times we go out to eat. Our food tastes better, so why look elsewhere?

Depsite not finding broccoli this week, I did find some beautiful swiss chard at the Western Wake Farmer’s Market. I love chard–it has such a fresh, light flavor that is a welcome respite from our kale and collard diet over the last few months. Lettuce and spring onions are out and other spring veggies are right around the corner! We are very excited that all of our area farmer’s markets crank up In 2 weeks and our Produce Box delivery starts soon as well!

How did we do on spending this week? Our budget this week looks like this:

  • Rainbow Farm (organic, ground lamb): $10.00
  • Farmhand Foods meatbox (pork chops): $12.00
  • Rare Earth Farm (Maple View fresh buttermilk): $2.50
  • State Farmer’s Market (onions, carrots): $3.50
  • Locals Seafood (rockfish, flounder): $32.00
  • Ben’s Produce (organic lettuce, organic swiss chard): $6.00
  • Hillsborough Cheese Company (Greek yogurt, baby brie): $7.00
  • Trader Joes (frozen fruit, soy milk, mushrooms, shallots, pita, tortillas, organic mayonaise): $25.39

Our total spent is $98.39! Just a hair under our budget of $100. I actually feel pretty good about this because we are eating a lot of fresh seafood and salads, which fit in perfectly with our 85 degree days! The only red meat we are eating this week are grilled lamb burgers, so that should shake things up a bit!

Menu for the Week

  • Sunday–Spicy marinated rockfish tacos with chipotle slaw, quinoa
  • Monday–Cornmeal dusted summer flounder, collard greens, quinoa
  • Tuesday–Eggs nested in sauteed swiss chard and mushrooms
  • Wednesday–Salad-pa-looza!!
  • Thursday–Grilled lamb burgers in pita with cucumber yogurt sauce, kale, rice
  • Friday–Out for grandmommy’s birthday
  • Saturday–Grilled pork chops, kale from the garden, beans

Thank you for reading our blog and for being a part of our journey. We have learned a lot about our community and ourselves and it just gets better as we go along!

Day 77–A Farmer’s Market Conundrum

I don’t mean to be grouchy, but Poole’s Diner, will you quit buying all the organic broccoli at the Farmer’s Market? For the second week in a row, I’ve headed out to the state farmer’s market and made a beeline for the only organic farmer out there on weekdays. Both weeks, I have arrived just after the buyer from a local restaurant has cleaned them out of organic broccoli and swiss chard. UGH!!! And GRRRR!!!

Now, as a responsible adult, I know that really, all the broccoli and chard is for sale and that’s life, right? Snooze, you lose. A farmer has to make his/her living and chefs have people to feed. But shopping ettiquete would dictate that you don’t show up and take everything, especially when you could make an arrangement with the farmer for a commercial purchase. And selling ettiquete would seem to be that you don’t sell your entire stock of a popular item to one buyer, leaving your regular customers with…beets. Now I loves me some beets, but not in place of broccoli.

This wouldn’t be a big deal, but apparently no one else at the market has broccoli or swiss chard, organic or otherwise, leaving me here, whining and bereft of spring veggies. Hopefully the Western Wake Farmer’s Market can do me a solid today. ‘Cause I really can’t stand my own whining and it could be a long week.

Some of you who read this blog are farmers and some of you are farmer’s market shoppers. So what do YOU think? Is the ettiquete rule silly? Do I need to take my lunch hour at 9:00 a.m. so I can secure the coveted vegetables? As the demand for organic, local vegetables increases, I can definitely see this kind of thing becomming an issue.

So be prepared for some competition if you’re headed out to the farmer’s market this morning. As for me, I’ll be tying on my track shoes and putting a Ben Hur spike on my recycled shopping bag. Get outta mama’s way, peoples. I’m in it for the broccoli…

Day 74–Spring Cleaning

Our weather this week is so wonderful, it actually makes me want to clean the house. Not the usual “stuff everything into a closet” cleaning I usually go for, but the “throw open the windows and scrub the house til it shines” kind of cleaning. Some people head to the beach–I grab a mop bucket. Insane, I know.

This weekend we will be prepping our raised garden beds, so I’m taking a couple of days now to catch up on some projects and really clean the house. Yesterday I tackled my daughter’s room–yes, even under the bed–and somehow found three loads worth of laundry I didn’t know existed (the impulse to hide things instead of clean is apparently genetic). Today I’m tackling bathrooms, windows and floors. Somewhere in the mix there will be a Girl Scout meeting, and I even considered whether there was a cleaning badge (there isn’t).

In case the spring cleaning bug has gotten to you, too, here are some recipes for non-toxic cleaning solutions. They are amazingly effective and easy on your respiratory system as well as your nervous system. Given them a shot and let me know what you think!

Multi-purpose Spray Cleaner (works great on windows, too)

  • 3 Tbsp. white vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. borax
  • Hot water
  • Essential oil (for scent only and completely optional)

Combine vinegar and borax in a 16 oz. spray bottle. Add hot water to fill. Add essential oil, if you are using (I don’t). Shake. This solution will keep indefinitely.

Oven Cleaner (this is thanks to Heather at Sugar Dish Me)

  • Baking soda
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • Hot water

Mix vinegar and water in a spray bottle. Remove the baking racks from your oven and sprinkle baking soda evenly across the oven floor. Spray vinegar and water solution on the oven floor over the baking soda, so that the baking soda is quite damp. The baking soda will fizz–cleaning at work! Spray vinegar and water on the oven walls as well. Close the oven door and leave overnight. Wipe up all the yucky stuff from your oven and wipe down the entire oven with clean water. This is AMAZING!!! 

Toilet Bowl Cleaner

  • Baking soda or borax

Sprinkle in the bowl and let sit overnight. Scrub with a toilet brush. Voila!

Hardwood Floor Cleaner (don’t use if you have specialty flooring as this may void your floor warranty)

  • 1/4 cup castile soap
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 2 gallons warm water

Combine all in a large plastic bucket. Apply with a mop or sponge (Note: I used an old towel to dry the floor after mopping to avoid streaks)

Scouring Powder

  • Baking soda or borax    OR
  • 1/2 cup baking soda
  • Castile soap (enough to make a toothpaste-like paste)

Use gloves to protect your hands. Apply either baking soda or soap paste to tough areas like bathroom showers and tubs. Scrub with a brush or sponge. Rinse with water.

Tomorrow’s post will feature recipes for insect control. Here in the land of horse-sized mosquitoes and flying “palmetto bugs” (if you’ve never seen a flying roach the size of a Cadillac, consider yourself fortunate), I will be trying these out for sure!

Have a healthy spring cleaning! Or, and maybe better yet, head to the beach :-).

Day 73–National Chicken Noodle Soup Day

A homemade chicken noodle soup with bread

In honor of the March 13 holiday, National Chicken Noodle Soup Day, I will be making a nice pot of soup for my family. Nothing uses a bounty of fresh, local vegetables like soup (well, a good stir fry will use some veggies, too, but it’s not stir fry day). Did you know that a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup has only 8% chicken? I don’t know about you, but I like more than that in my soup, so I’ll be making my own.

The first component to good chicken soup is having homemade chicken stock. I love making my own chicken stock because it makes use of something (the chicken carcass) that would otherwise be tossed away and turns it into something that is far superior to anything you can buy in a can or box at the grocery. I also love making stock because I can do it while I do a half-dozen other things like cleaning, doing laundry or (my favorite) watching football. Football is sadly over for another six months, but I’ll be spring cleaning the house and working on some volunteer projects instead. If you finish a roast chicken, but don’t have time to make stock, wrap up the chicken bones and freeze them until you are ready. It’s totally worth it.

Making soup is a forgiving process. With few exceptions, you can make substitutions and use whatever you have on hand and it will be good. My favorite soup to make is an Italian Ribolita–I’ll post that recipe at some point–because it uses up a lot of leftover fresh vegetables and is incredibly satisfying in the fall and winter. But today is chicken noodle soup day, so let’s get started…

Chicken Stock

  • 1 chicken carcass or leftover chicken bones
  • 1 organic onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 2-3 cloves organic garlic, peeled and smashed with the back of a knife
  • 2-3 organic celery stalks or leftover tops, cleaned and cut into large pieces
  • 3 organic carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
  • 1 Tbsp. black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  1. Put all ingredients into a large stock pot and fill pot with water to cover all.
  2. Bring to a boil over high heat.
  3. Skim any foam off the surface and reduce heat to low.
  4. Simmer on stove for 1-2 hours.
  5. Take pot from heat and allow to cool about 30 minutes.
  6. Strain contents of pot through a colander into another large pot or bowl. Discard chicken bones and vegetables.
  7. Cover strained stock and chill in the refrigerator overnight.
  8. Skim fat from the top and either use or store in freezer.
  9. You can freeze this stock for up to 6 months.

NOTE: I don’t add salt to my stock because I’m never sure how I will use it. You can add it if you like, but I prefer to add salt to the finished dish.

Chicken Noodle Soup

This is my basic chicken soup recipe, but by all means feel free to add, substitute or eliminate as you wish. I tend to like my soup very thick, so you can add more stock, water, wine or whatever makes you happy so you have the right consistency for you.

  • 12 cups of homemade chicken stock
  • 2-3 cups of cooked chicken (usually whatever I have left over), cut into 1″ pieces
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp. flour
  • 4 organic carrots, peeled and cut into roughly 1/4″ slices
  • 2 cups frozen or fresh organic peas
  • 1 organic onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2-3 organic celery stalks, cleaned and sliced thin
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 16 oz. pasta (fettuccine noodles broken into pieces, orzo or any pasta you like)
  1. In a large stock pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil at medium/high heat.
  2. Add vegetables and cook until slightly tender, about 5 minutes or so.
  3. Sprinkle flour over vegetables and cook another 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
  4. Add chicken and chicken stock, stir well and simmer.
  5. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Simmer on medium/low heat for about 1 hour.
  7. Add pasta and cook another 10-15 minutes until pasta is done.
  8. Serve with a salad or with a good bread.
  9. Soup can be frozen for up to 6 months.

Happy chicken noodle soup day!

Day 72–Learning to Can-Can

Preserved food in Mason jars

When I was in my mid-twenties, and had vast stretches of free time, I learned to make apple butter. I liked it, but that’s about as far into canning as I ventured. I think a trip to the mountains of North Carolina spurred that experiment. Faced with an abundance of apples that were brought back as tasty souvenirs, I decided to do something constructive with them. Along the way, I stopped canning apple butter and moved on to other things.

At the Dig In! conference last weekend, Ellie and I took a class on home canning and I was reminded of how satisfying it was to can my own creations. Now we are inspired to make the most of our spring strawberries and summer tomatoes and–the most fun part–we will be doing it together as a mother/daughter project. Hopefully this will help us make the most of our local produce and eliminate our need to purchase preserves (although the preserves we currently purchase are all locally made).

According to our instructor, beginning canners should heed a few rules:

  • Cook from well-tested recipes to start
  • Use real canning jars (not other recycled jars from home)
  • Buy canning tongs–do not remove hot jars with your hands (from the chuckles around the room, this is apparently more common than I would have thought)
  • Use the hot water bath method, not the inverted jar method of sealing jars as it is more reliable and consistent
  • Make your own pectin or cook the old-fashioned way (cook your food longer) so that you don’t need it. Commercial pectin has very suspicious origins that involve slaughterhouse by-products.

The first two points were very useful, the third and fourth had never occurred to me and the fifth was just gross.

I also learned that, at least in NC, food stamp (EBT) recipients can use their grocery funds to purchase vegetable or fruit plants. I had no idea! There is a movement afoot to get this information out to folks so they will have the opportunity to have, for example, tomatoes all summer for the same price as a few tomatoes. And if folks can preserve their food, that extends the quality and availability of local, sustainable foods for people in food desert areas.

Do any of you can your own produce? What works well for you? We won’t have any strawberries to start with until next month, so in the meantime we will be reading up on the process and on interesting recipes!

 

Day 69–The Prodigal Son and Crunchy Granola

Cosmo, our Prodigal Son

Our household is fairly small. Two grown ups, one young person who thinks she’s a grown up, a dog and a cat. We have a peaceable kingdom in our home–even the animals get along like buddies. So when one of our small unit goes astray, it throws us all into a tailspin. Such was the case yesterday, when our young, indoor cat, Cosmo, decided to take an unapproved field trip into the suburban wild. All day. And all night. After searching the neighborhood for hours, I was sick with worry and my daughter was sobbing.

In situations like this, my husband is the voice of eternal optimism. I, on the other hand, am a worrier. Neither of us are pessimists, but there is definitely something in my Catholic upbringing that tells me if you don’t worry, God might think you don’t care and move on to someone who is a little more focused. Worrying is rewarded, while joyful optimism is punished with rainy wedding days, warm beer and locusts. This is all, of course, absolutely ridiculous. Even so, it is clear that no amount of Buddhist meditation will erase the worry gene from my being. So now I prefer to see my “what ifs” as the Yin to Tom’s “it will be fine” Yang–we balance each other in our peaceable kingdom. In the end, after a rainy night and morning, Cosmo returned to us. Lured by the smell of breakfast cooking and the sound of the ice maker (truly, he begs for ice cubes and plays hockey with them all over the kitchen), he came inside. He’s filthy. He’s wet. He’s tired. But our kingdom is complete again. And like the Prodigal Son, we celebrated him with extra food, hugs and the warm blanket he loves so much.

When I’m worried, I either eat like a linebacker or I don’t eat at all. Proper worry-eating requires crunchy, sweet and salty food, especially if it can be popped in my mouth quickly. Since this is not a healthy habit, I try to focus on eating things that are more virtuous than potato chips and cheese doodles. Granola is a favorite food of choice. Here is a great recipe by Creative Noshing (http://creativenoshing.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/maple-pecan-granola/) for delicious granola. Keep it on file for those worry days. Or really, why wait for worrying? It would be great any day, especially with some Greek yogurt. Happy baking.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to go have a little “conference” with Cosmo…

Day 68–Roasted Broccoli and Shrimp a la Jerry

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Roasted Broccoli, Peppers and Shrimp--Easy and Healthy!

My friend Jerry sent me this recipe (thanks, Jerry!) and I finally had a chance to add it to our weekly menu. Fresh, local, organic broccoli and NC shrimp–a simple, and amazingly good combination. Although it wasn’t in the original recipe, I added some sliced red bell pepper since I had it handy. This recipe is light, but satisfying and quite tasty. Don’t skimp on the coriander seeds or hot pepper–they infuse the entire dish and make it something special. Healthy, quick and easy to make, this recipe hits all the marks for a succesful, weeknight dinner. And even better, it only uses one bowl, a cutting board and one baking sheet, making cleanup super quick.

A note about shrimp. I bought large-sized shrimp and 10 minutes was just right for roasting. If you buy medium or small shrimp, you may want to back off on the roasting time. If you don’t have access to local or U.S. shrimp (or you just don’t like shrimp), you could probably try this with a thick, locally available fish (here that would be tuna or swordfish) cut into chunks. Scallops might be good also!

You could also play around with what vegetables to include, and make this a truly seasonal dish. I can’t wait to see how we can work our Produce Box veggies into this dish over the spring and summer!

Roasted Broccoli and Shrimp a la Jerry

This makes 3 servings or 2 servings for hungry seafood lovers!

  • 2 lbs. broccoli
  • 1 lb. fresh shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • One red bell pepper, sliced into strips
  • 4 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • 1 tsp. whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp. whole cumin seeds (or 1/2 tsp. of ground)
  • 1/8 tsp. hot chili powder (I used red pepper flakes)
  • 1 lemon, zested with lemon reserved for serving
  • Kosher salt and ground pepper to taste
  • Rice, quinoa or other cooked grains
    1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
    2. Cut the broccoli into large florets with some stem remaining.
    3. Cut the red bell pepper into strips and cut each strip in half crosswise.
    4. In a bowl, toss the broccoli florets and bell pepper with 2 Tbsp. olive oil, coriander, cumin, hot chili pepper, and salt and pepper to taste.
    5. Put broccoli and pepper mix on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes.
    6. In the bowl, toss shrimp with remaining 2 Tbsp. of olive oil, lemon zest and salt and pepper to taste.
    7. Add to the broccoli mix and pop back in the oven for another 10 minutes or until the shrimp is pink and opaque, but not overcooked.
    8. Serve over rice with lemon wedges and you are done!

      The broccoli and peppers before roasting--so pretty!

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The final product just before the feast!

Day 67–There’s An App for That

My phone knows where my food comes from. That seems like crazy talk to me. Wasn’t it just yesterday I was using my brother’s super fast Commodore 64K to play Space Invaders?

I don’t think I can say it enough, but I love my iphone. My poor little laptop is becoming more of a doorstop as I marvel at the possibilities of my phone. The number and variety of apps continually amazes me, even if most of them are fluff. And as much as my daughter loves Plants vs. Zombies, I tend to favor those apps that help me get through my days in a more practical way. My newest find is HarvestMark, an app that actually tracks the source of your food. For reals.

There are limits, of course. Your food has to include a bar code or QR code, which does limit the possibilities. But for me, food with a bar code is where I have more concerns. I typically know where my whole foods come from–the processed and pre-bagged foods are more of a mystery. The database of bar codes is still improving, so while some things like canned soup are not listed yet, others like packaged fruits and meats, are. It isn’t perfect, but it is the start of something exciting. Another tool to help me be an informed consumer.

I’m enjoying using the tool, but trying not to irritate other shoppers in Trader Joes by becoming one of “those people” who blocks food access by busying myself on my phone. Lord knows, I am usually the person not-s0-patiently tap, tap, tapping my foot while waiting for someone to back away from the Greek yogurt. So for now, you will find me in the empty aisle by the fiber supplements, scanning my food. I am not playing Plants vs. Zombies. Probably.