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The Commons
Food and Drink

Keeping the (body’s) home fires burning

Food is your body’s fuel — and you need to tend to it in the winter month’s, however many days the groundhog says are left

Susie Crowther is the author of The No Recipe Cookbook: A Beginner’s Guide to the Art of Cooking, through Skyhorse Publishing (norecipecookbook.com).

Originally published in The Commons issue #240 (Wednesday, February 5, 2014). This story appeared on page C4.


WEST BRATTLEBORO—Growing up in Vermont, I never understood the myth of Groundhog Day.

According to Bill Anderson, who wrote a book on the subject (and as quoted by the Punxsutawney [Penn.] Groundhog Club), the Feb. 2 tradition is “a popular tradition in the United States. It is also a legend that traverses centuries, its origins clouded in the mists of time with ethnic cultures and animals awakening on specific dates.”

Groundhog Day, as the tradition goes, is “the day that the Groundhog comes out of his hole after a long winter sleep to look for his shadow.”

“If he sees it, he regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather and returns to his hole.

“If the day is cloudy and, hence, shadowless, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground.”

The part that always confounded was the “six more weeks of bad weather.”

Only six more weeks? If only! Around these parts, that would be blessing.

Imagine if we could start tilling our gardens around mid-March instead of purchasing that new shovel at Brown and Roberts because the weight of New England spring snow snapped another fine shovel head. Honestly.

But shucks. It doesn’t take a romantic rodent to offer us signs that winter’s on its way out.

* * *

As a young girl, my father introduced me to Vermont’s tender pre-spring signs. He’d point out the melting snow around the bases of trees.

It’s something a tween would never have noticed on her own. Like, OMG — nature? Whatever. I’m so sure. However, when I now walk around our woods, I peek playfully, like a young girl again, and I celebrate the gap widening between trunks and snowy beds.

The other hopeful sign of spring is the sugaring! More wood smoke fills the air, like smoky Christmas lights in the sky, signaling the boiling of the sap. Our neighbors Dan and Gail MacArthur (anyone on one’s ridge is a neighbor, yes?) invite us to drop off empty jugs. It’s a February ritual that always sparks happy hope in my heart.

* * *

The boiling of sap reminds me of our own fires burning. We are living beings, and as such, require fuel. The fuel we burn, like the sap bubbling, is sugar.

Our primary source of sugar comes through complex carbohydrates from whole foods. “Complex” means long chains of sugar or starch molecules in these foods. These long chains could be compared to big logs for our body’s wood stove.

The body stores these big logs — complex chains — in our muscles, like a woodpile. To keep the fire burning at a steady pace, our stoves need smaller pieces of wood. The body must convert long chains into shorter, or “simple” chains — by chopping the big logs into smaller, stove-length pieces.

These simple sugar chains are released into the bloodstream and distributed throughout the body wherever energy is needed, just as logs burn in the woodstove and distribute heat throughout the house. The body is capable of burning only a few simple chains at a time. This process of burning is your metabolism.

It takes two to four hours to burn a big log in the fire. Therefore, long chains provide a long, steady supply of energy. People typically eat three to five times a day, because that is how many times they need to stoke their fires.

The liver converts all carbohydrates into glucose — our body’s burnable energy source. Complex carbohydrates are first stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles to be converted into glucose, as needed.

As sugar is used as energy — as we burn our logs — the adrenal glands and pancreas sense a drop in glucose levels. As glucose levels deplete, our fire begins to go out. When the drop is significant enough, we need to add more logs to the fire. The pancreas signals the liver to convert glycogen into glucose, which is released into the blood. Blood sugar safely returns to normal levels.

Think of it this way: The pancreas is the nagging housewife, and glucagon is her nag. The liver is the nagged husband who has to go out into the cold and get more firewood to stoke the fire. As we deplete our glycogen storage (burn our logs), we experience hunger (the house gets cold), and the nagging cycle continues.

Since we are only halfway into this winter thing, we must pay heed to our wood stoves. Here are a few tips, to keep your fuel systems running smoothly:

1. Burn quality wood

Eat whole grains and vegetables. These are your “small logs” that keep your fire burning for a few hours. Eat local meats, eggs, and dairy for your “big logs” that keep your fires burning overnight.

2. Stoke the fire

During the winter months, move your body.

Fires need a good ventilation. Despite raging logic and inertia, you need to get yourself outside. Food needs fresh air to burn, so go out and get some.

Stovepipes get sludgy, so sometimes we have to burn out the muck. Movement improves metabolism.

Walk the dogs. Shovel the deck. Dance in your underwear. Whatever it is, do it. You will burn your fuel more efficiently.

3. Circulate the heat

Winter is cold, so balance your body with warmth. Just as a fan circulates the wood’s heat, we need to stimulate our fuel’s potential.

Hot foods like soups and stews warm the system and give off steam to help break up nasal invaders. Cook with stimulating herbs like ginger, cumin, fennel, sage, and hot peppers to awaken sluggish blood circulation and body systems, such as digestion and elimination.

4. Water on the stove

Yankees put a pot of water on their woodstoves to replenish the dry winter air. Do the same. Our bodies are comprised of more than 50 percent water, so rewater yourself. The adage “eight glasses per day” will suit you just fine.

5. Conserve your firewood

Once in a while, we have to let the fire go out and clean the stove. While it’s tempting to nibble nonstop during the hibernating months, remember that eating requires digestion, which requires massive amounts of energy. During winter, we don’t have a whole lot of energy to waste, so conserve it.

Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored or suffering from cabin fever. Eat for physiological — not psychological — reasons.

* * *

On Feb. 2, that little rat, Punxsutawney Phil sealed our fate by seeing his shadow. Little does he know, we live in Vermont.

Six more weeks? Bring it on, groundhog.

Fare well.


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