What do we turn to for both everyday sustenance and seasonal celebration? Food. Ellen Kanner explains how we can impact our spiritual lives as well as our community through what we choose to put in our bodies. In Feeding the Hungry Ghost (New World Library, 2013), she describes the disconnect between us and our food, and the best way around that is giving our bodies the nutrition we need through a vegan lifestyle. The following excerpt comes from Chapter 1, "The Seed," and talks about the new beginnings that seeds provide both physically and metaphorically.
Seeds are where it all begins. They promise the start of things. They’re super-concentrated sources of energy. I look at everything growing in my backyard, from my newly sprouted purslane to the ten-foot firebush exploding with firecracker-red flowers, favorite of zebra long-wing butterflies and hummingbirds, to our thirty-foot live oak, which stretches its lanky, leafy limbs out to provide shelter and canopy. They all began as seeds — everyday magic.
Nature makes that kind of magic easy. You drop a seed in the dirt, cover it with soil, give it some water, leave the sun and the seed to make friends with each other, and honey, you’re in business.
But then there’s the fine print. Firebush needs direct sun and can handle shallow, sandy South Florida soil. It’s a tough native. Purslane is supposed to be a weed and thus thrive like a weed, but mine’s anemic, timid, probably suffering from sunstroke. Even weeds have their needs, and purslane prefers filtered sunlight. A seed only fulfills its superhero potential if it gets proper nurturing.
Then there are your more metaphoric seeds (and I do love a metaphor), the new beginnings life offers you — the joy of a new job, a new love, a new home, a new baby, a new year. Such new beginnings endow you with all the energy of a seed. You’re awakening, feeling your way, tentatively reaching your roots into the soil. These kinds of seeds are times of hope; but they’re always times of change, and change is tough.
Here’s what’s even tougher — you don’t always get to choose a new beginning. Losing your job or breaking up with your partner wouldn’t make anyone’s list of top ten fave life events, but suddenly, there you are, in it up to your adenoids. That seed generates an energy of its own — like a tornado, it rips up your life and knocks you on your ass. It takes a herculean effort to roll out of bed in the morning. Where’s the joy in that, ace?
And while it seems to be raining seeds around you, both the happy kind and the seeds you wouldn’t even wish on your ex, think of yourself as a seed, too — a really gorgeous, spectacular, one-of-a-kind seed. But your gorgeousness can’t come into full flowering unless you, too, get the nurturing you need.
For me, it means rooting myself in my community, being part of the initiatives that bring real food and real people together. Sometimes, I confess, I need to force myself to attend this meeting, that event. But I’m almost always better for it. The people I meet inspire me and energize me and take me in directions I didn’t know I wanted to go. You’re growing oyster mushrooms? Wow, how do you do that? How can I do that? You’re teaching children to cook? Can I volunteer? I’m lucky to be nourished by my native soil.
You know best what kind of metaphoric soil you need, where you feel your happiest, truest self, where your own strength is coaxed forth, where you can set down strong roots and lift your face to the sun.
Or maybe you don’t know. Maybe you’ve been so pelted with misery seeds, you barely know what you look like, let alone what you need. They say suffering is wonderfully character building. I say you’ve got plenty of character as it is. I say whatever’s giving you grief should just get out of your way and get out of town. Until it does, though, you’re stuck. You’re going through hell, it’s taking every ounce of your strength, and you can’t quite see how you’re ever going to return to that blissful, faraway place called normal.
What to Eat
Start by nurturing yourself. A basic way to give yourself the care you need is to pay attention to what you eat and to make healthier choices for all concerned — for you, for the planet.
Seeds are an easy place to begin. While vegetables still have their detractors (why? why?), anyone can chomp on a handful of seeds. If you’re struggling, they’ll support you nutritionally and offer a sprinkle of badly needed cheer. If you’re happy, they’ll only make you happier. They offer a crunch that bespeaks indulgence, but with it come the phytonutrients and fats our bodies hunger for, the kind that give us a nice inner glow, no microdermabrasion required.
Some seeds we snarf — sunflower seeds, pepitas (pumpkin seeds).
Some seeds we use to impart deep flavor in cooking — cumin, cardamom, mustard, coriander, fennel, to name a few of my favorites.
Some we eat without even realizing what they are. All your legumes, from teensy red lentils to massive gigantes are, botanically speaking, seeds.
And some we mean to get around to trying, because we hear how tremendous they are for our health, yet we’re daunted by them — flax, chia, and hemp come to mind.
Well, honey, your time has come. Whether you’re flourishing or faltering, you need more of these teensy guys in your life. Flax rules when it comes to omega-3s, those excellent fatty acids. Chia seeds are right up there in the omega-3 department, but they also have a fantastic amount of fiber and antioxidants. Ancient Aztec warriors thrived on them, and they were pretty tough guys. Hemp seeds, tiniest of all, offer more protein per ounce than any animal protein.
Use them individually or mixed together in a seedy cocktail as a topping for casseroles and roasted vegetables. We love texture. Add them to grain dishes, both sweet and savory — oatmeal isn’t oatmeal for me without a sprinkling of seeds. And chia and flax make excellent egg substitutes in baking. Mixing the seeds with a little water forms a bonding agent. Not only do you get the body-supporting benefit of the seeds; you get the nice cohesive quality of eggs without the cholesterol and without ruffling a single chicken feather.
I believe in backing up talk with something worth eating. So when I was thinking what kind of seedy recipe to use here, I thought of cake—seed cake, simple but soulful and long beloved in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Its origins date back as far as the Middle Ages, and back in the day, the seed in question tended to be caraway, making for a treat that walked the line between sweet and savory. Good as far as it goes, but trending toward heavy, and certainly heavy in vegan-unfriendly ingredients like butter, milk, and eggs.
Vegan baking, like life, is about balance and compromise. Rather than weird you out with a bunch of arcane ingredients you’ll have to shop for, I’ve swapped the traditional dairy and eggs for other items that are whole and plant based and fairly gettable. I’ve also swapped caraway seeds for anise. Like caraway, anise is excellent for digestion but has a gentler flavor. It’s mildly licorice-y and is mellow in the mouth. It joins a symphony of other seeds for a moist cake of haunting fragrance and flavor.
Seed Cake Recipe
Serve as dessert or as an anytime restorative with coffee or tea.
Serves 8 or so
- 1 cup unsweetened soy or hemp milk
- 2 tablespoons ground flaxseeds (also known as flax meal)
- 2 tablespoons ground chia seeds
- 2 teaspoons anise seeds
- 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 3/4 cup evaporated cane sugar
- 1/3 cup hemp, flax, or canola oil, plus more for the pan
- 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
- 1/3 cup raisins
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly oil an 8-inch round cake pan or a 9-x-5-inch loaf pan.
In a small bowl, combine the soy milk, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and anise seeds. Stir gently to combine and let sit while you assemble the other ingredients.
In a large bowl, sift together the whole wheat flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Add the lemon zest.
In another large bowl, stir together the evaporated cane sugar, hemp oil, applesauce, and lemon juice. Add to the flour mixture, along with the soy milk mixture, which, thanks to the seeds, will have thickened madly. Stir together, then fold in the raisins.
Pour into the prepared baking pan. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the cake is golden and puffed, and a tester inserted in the center comes away crumb-free and clean. You can also give it a gentle poke with a finger; it should spring back when baked through.
Remove from the oven and let cool. Wrapped well and refrigerated, the cake keeps for several days.
Reprinted with permission from Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner by Ellen Kanner and published by New World Library, 2013.