Ottolenghi and Alison (or Cooking My Way Through Menopause)

blogmenopausal

I still remember the moment I decided to ignore the information that hormone replacement therapy during menopause could lead to increased risks for breast cancer and heart disease.

I was forty, or slightly older, with a baby and toddler, and having a hard time keeping things together.  A friend had told me about a video that was going viral on the Internet (pre-YouTube) showing a frazzled mother who had lost her keys. I’m not overstating when I say she “overreacted.”

“You might want to watch it,” hinted my friend, who is childless.

That’s when I learned about perimenopause, that undefined state that can last a decade or more, in which a woman’s hormones start going kerflooey and her emotions can get exaggerated. Superimpose that onto new motherhood. It wasn’t always pretty.

So when I saw the article about hormones and menopause, even though I knew it was important, I made the conscious decision to ignore it. “I can’t deal with menopause when I am trying to deal with perimenopause,” I decided, using the “one day at a time” strategy that experts advised for women in an enhanced hormonal state. I made the same decision about college, ignoring articles in the New York Times education supplement about student resume building and Top Ten Colleges to Watch. Views on hormone replacement therapy and college would change by the time they affected me, I reasoned, and pretty much cruised through the next ten years managing my life and my monthly symptoms just fine, with the help of some excellent dark chocolate.

theo chocolate

Lo and behold, there’s no longer any denying that in the next four years I will have to deal with both menopause and college.

Daughter #1 and I attended a presentation at her middle school entitled “High School and Beyond, Taking Charge of Your Destiny.” We learned that grades count from Day One in high school.  We learned the recommended GPAs to get into all of the colleges in Washington State, as well as some University of California schools, Stanford and MIT.  UCLA likes leaders, we were told. We left with a pocket-sized card listing the recommended college preparation steps a student should take in grades 9-12.

Around this time, my “Aunt from Redbank” (as the monthly visitor was known when my mother was growing up in New Jersey) started showing up more frequently and overstaying her welcome. Just as D#1 couldn’t escape the inevitable, neither, apparently, could I.

I turned once again to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause, which is chock full of interesting and useful medical information, but which, as I’ve mentioned before, does seem to have a not-so-hidden agenda about jettisoning husbands. I learned estrogen dominance could be the root cause of my excess bleeding and maybe even my excess belly fat (a girl can dream).

Meanwhile, Dr. Northrup advised me to contemplate who was draining my life blood from me.

J'accuse!

J’accuse!

Though I’ve mentioned I suffer from latrophobia, I actually made an appointment to see my Ob/Gyn.

The week I had to wait to see him was tough.  It’s June, a time that any mother can tell you, is crazy with end-of-year this and summer planning-that.

It’s another graduation year for our family and, though I won’t be weepy at the ceremony as I was last year and two years before that, there’s no denying that we are moving into a new phase of life and time is marching on.

To calm myself, I turned to the thing that helped me through new motherhood and perimenopause: cooking.

Unusually alone on Sunday morning and feeling under the weather, I comforted myself with a batch of shakshuka, using my standby recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s wonderful vegetarian book Plenty.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Come Monday, the beginning of the last week in the end-of-school marathon, the week of my doctor’s appointment, graduation and a week that Jeff would be partly out of town, I found myself unable to focus on work.

So instead I focused on cooking:  My weekly batch of Early Bird granola, Lahlou Mourad’s fantastic piquillo almond dip for Daughter #2′s Global Issues celebration (I unwittingly violated the school’s “no nuts” policy, but people loved it anyway) and the “Very Full Tart” from Plenty.

tart

This soothed me in a way that no hormones or dark chocolate ever have and it got me thinking:  If Julie Powell could cook and blog her way through the “crisis” of turning 30, why couldn’t I cook and blog my way through menopause?

Maybe I’d get a book deal.

I wonder who would play me in the film?

A girl can dream.

So, just as I used to incorporate European Chicken Night into my (almost) weekly repertoire, I am hereby introducing Mostly Mediterranean Menopause Night (though I will probably keep the name to myself) featuring mostly the recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s three cookbooks, with some recipes from Lahlou Mourad, my Turkish friend Sureyya, Greg Malouf (author of Turquoise) and other luminaries thrown in.

Here’s the recipe for the Very Full tart, which made me feel very virtuous when I made it. I am not the only person inspired by eggplant. (To the horror of D #s 1 and 2, I sing this song and dance around the kitchen pretty much every time I make it).

It tasted great cold the next day.

Recently some friends and I took another cooking class with Sureyya. The following week, a group of us, who first met when our high school-bound kids were in kindergarten, gathered at Sureyya’s wonderful Cafe Turko, to support a friend whose husband suffered a brain injury.  Sureyya joined our group of women and laughed and talked with us.  Later, she joined me in donating food to my friend and her family.  

May peace return to Turkey.

Here is Sureyya’s recipe for Turkish Mountain Salad with Pomegranate Molasses, Red Pepper Paste and Olives:

Serves 6

1/2 onion, finely chopped

2 T green olives, chopped

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 T red pepper paste

1/2 t salt

2 T chopped mint leaves

1/2 c chopped green pepper

2 T crumbled feta cheese

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 t cumin

2 Roma tomatoes diced

1/4 cup olive oil

1 T pomegranate molasses

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl.  Marinate for 15 minutes. Serve with warm bread.

Hormone replacement therapy.

Hormone replacement therapy.

Hormones Hit the Big Time

Wading through my post-vacation stack of newspapers, I found an article entitled “All the Rage” in T, the New York Times style magazine.  It was not a description of spring fashion trends.  Written by Ayelet Waldman, it was an account of how PMS exacerbates her bipolar disorder.

You may remember Waldman, wife of author Michael Chabon, for her controversial 2005 Modern Love essay, in which she admitted that she loved her husband more than her four kids.  Since then, she’s had some fun playing agent provacateur among the mommy set, most recently in her memoir, Bad Mother.  In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross after the book came out,  Waldman acknowledged that her bipolar disorder may have led to some inappropriate moments of “oversharing.”

At the risk of oversharing myself (since I do not have bipolar disorder, I don’t have a handy excuse), I should tell you that recently I enticed Jeff with a “come hither” look to see the latest additions to my bedtime reading.

Not this:

or this:

But this:

and this:

Ooh, baby.

An avid appreciator of reference materials, I bought these books as a way to take control of my health.  Sadly, after a hopeful healing trend, my neck recovery hit a downward trajectory, probably because of hours at my laptop revising my book manuscript and one wimpy afternoon of skiing during our recent trip to the Canadian Okanagan (the photo above is the view from our condo at the Big White ski resort). There are MRIs and acupuncture and cortisone shots in my future.

I bought the menopause book for research.  I’d skimmed Christiane Northrup’s seminal work ten years ago, around the time perimenopause-like symptoms first debuted in my body. (At the ripe age of 40, I had a baby and a toddler to care for, so sheer fatigue may have trumped hormones as the culprit behind my mood swings and frustrations.)  At the time, I was put off by Northrup’s thesis that menopause is an opportunity for shedding extraneous burdens, and especially her suggestion that sometimes these burdens included husbands.

Though I’m still not interested in shedding my husband (after all, who else would appreciate the humor I found in my choice of boudoir reading?), this time around, the book warranted a closer look for its recommendations on mid-life weight control, reasons to have your thyroid checked and the physiological foundations of menopause.

My friends and I have been furtively comparing notes about symptoms we’ve been experiencing that may or may not be due to the impending “changes,” and we share a similar sense of bewilderment about these changes, not unlike how our daughters feel and felt about menstruation.

Menarche of the penguins

If you live in Seattle and have had children go through puberty, you’ve likely heard about an invaluable resource, commonly referred to as “that class.”  “That class” is actually one component of the Great Conversations program offered at Seattle Children’s Hospital, which offers classes and presentations on puberty, sexuality, parenting and other topics relating to adolescence.

In 1988, nurse Julie Metzger developed “For Girls Only,”as a fun, informal way for mothers and daughters to discuss puberty.  “For Boys Only,” geared towards fathers and sons, followed in 1992 and is taught by Dr. Rob Lehman.   Both classes have been a Seattle rite-of-passage ever since, and Julie is warm, funny, supportive and very, very informative.

 Remembering how much fun it was to sit among a roomful of girls and women shouting “penis!,” my friends and I wished Julie would offer a class “For Women Only,” so we could talk freely about hot flashes and cold libidos, sleep disorders, forgetfulness and overall bitchiness and maybe even do some shouting.

“You are not the first or even the 100th to ask this same question,” Julie told me.   “That says something right there about the need, doesn’t it?”

The other night, my family and I watched an episode of Modern Family with a plot line devoted to PMS.  The fact that hormones have made it to primetime TV (the final frontier?) as well a style magazine tells me that, just as our generation of women turned mothering into endless fodder for books, magazine articles, movies and TV shows, we may be on the verge of a menopausal renaissance.  There will be “bad girls,” like Ayelet Waldman and Sandra Tsing Loh, who refuse to “go gently into the good night,” good girls like Christiane Northrup, who remind us (after we’ve shedded the excess baggage) to take our flax seeds, and the French, who put everyone to shame.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will scratch our heads, eat our yams and dark chocolate and hope that, as the topic of menopause gains traction in American society, the discussion doesn’t become a version of the “Mommy wars.”

All those flying legs of lamb could be dangerous.

Julie Metzger and Rob Lehman have just published a new book for pre-teens: Will Puberty Last My Whole Life? a collection of questions they have been asked in over 25 years of running “that class.”  The book is available at independent book stores and on Amazon.com

I’m interesting in hearing your take on menopause.  Are there books or other resources you’ve found invaluable?  Have you found an entertaining, yet informative way to tackle the topic with your peers?