Work with what you got

My online search began with “recipes without stove or oven.” I self-filtered results that required knives, measuring cups and large amounts of refrigerator space.

For three years, an antiquated microwave and beat-up toaster have comprised my entire kitchen. Oh, and a communal refrigerator.

Living in a sorority house has its setbacks.

Somewhat underwhelmed by my online options, the simplicity of deceptively rich Oreo balls caught my attention. The dish required three ingredients: cream cheese, Oreos and melting chocolate.

Sold.

Ready to rumble.

Ready to rumble.

1. Finely crush Oreo cookies.

Some might use a food processor to pulse the sandwich cookies into a fine powder. I settled with a Ziploc bag and elbow grease.

Crushing the cookies with my hands served as a wonderful stress reliever but earned glares from the dining room’s other occupants. I retreated to the enclosed kitchen, where I found an abandoned soup can that I transformed into a rolling pin.

Who needs rolling pins?

Who needs rolling pins anyway?

2. Mix cookie crumbs and cream cheese until blended.

Staring at a mess that resembled black, oxygen-rich soil, I knew blending in cream cheese without a spatula might pose a problem.

“Use another Ziploc. It’s so much easier that way,” said a junior who wandered in. “I made Oreo Balls in my dorm all the time freshman year.”

Taking the expert’s advice, I poured the cream cheese and crumbs into a bag and squished and squeezed the ingredients together “until blended.”

3. Shape into 1-inch balls. Freeze for 10 minutes.

I rolled the sticky mixture into lop-sided balls between the palms of my hands, aiming for quantity rather than quality; people would appreciate varying sizes.

Clean hands are a must.

Clean hands are a must.

In lieu of a freezer, I placed the misshapen balls toward the back of the refrigerator and sat vigil for 20 minutes. Field studies reveal hungry sorority women can sniff out chocolate within a mile radius.

4. Dip balls into melted chocolate and place on wax paper.

Finding a glass container large enough to melt my chocolate proved to be less of a challenge than I thought. My sister’s oversized coffee mug fit four squares of white chocolate comfortably, and the handle expedited the dipping process.

Fighting a line of women armed with un-popped popcorn, I nuked the perfectly shaped squares into a gooey liquid and prepared an Oreo ball assembly line.

By the fourth ball, I developed a rhythm: skewer, dip, shake, drop and sprinkle.

Shout out to my sister for lending me her coffee mug.

Shout out to my sister for lending me her coffee mug.

Instead of wax paper, I repurposed the Styrofoam plates our banner chair uses as paint palettes.

5. Refrigerate one hour or until firm.

Ready to finish my dish, I dumped the mostly-firm Oreo balls into a plastic container. Taping a note saying I would murder anyone who ate my creations to the lid, I pushed the container behind a milk jug for good measure.

As I looked at the mess of crumbs, sprinkles and stray white chocolate, I decided that the limitation of a microwave and toaster might be for the best.

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Sharing

The phone trilled, cutting through my fifth episode of “Duck Dynasty” like a screeching fishwife.

On the third ring I grudgingly picked it up.

I mean, it's 2013. Why do we even have this??

I mean, it’s 2013. Why do we even have this??

“Hello? It’s Mrs. Alma. I’ve got some satsumas for y’all. I’m coming over.” Click.

Five minutes later, my petite, sweater-clad neighbor rang the doorbell. She held a hefty Wal-Mart bag of the sweet orange citruses.

“I can’t stay,” she said as she pressed the bag into my hands. “We had so many and I just thought you’d want some.”

With surprising speed, the octogenarian darted back to her home down the cul-de-sac.

The only thing sweeter than these satsumas is Mrs. Alma.

The only thing sweeter than these satsumas is Mrs. Alma.

From the much-anticipated fig preserves Mrs. Debbie provides every summer to the wine and beer that accompany the Fontenot’s Friday evening porch gatherings, food and drink flow freely in my 16-house neighborhood.

Sharing food isn’t out of the ordinary.

When plaque paused Mrs. Helen’s heart, her neighbors quickly picked up the beat. Her home flooded with casseroles and cakes. Her husband didn’t go hungry.

There’s something special about giving food to one another. It ties us together, representing thanks, concern or well wishes. It shows how much we care.

In Louisiana, the kitchen is the heart of life; sharing food is equivalent of sharing love.

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Coffee Time

The humid chill seeps through my sweatshirt as my friend mindlessly twirls an empty coffee cup side to side and debates the importance of graduating in four years. She misses the pointed look from a wandering barista. I guess he doesn’t feel our $3.98 pumpkin spice lattes justify a 3-hour campout.

I disagree.

Looking around, I notice the faces haven’t changed from my 11 a.m. arrival. The blonde teenager furrows her brow as she switches from yellow to lime green highlighters. A man in wrinkled plaid and jeans drags on another cigarette, earning a glare from his middle-aged neighbor leafing though the Wall Street Journal.

There’s something about coffeehouses that begs for marathon study sessions or drawn-out reunions. Maybe the fumes keep customers on an Energizer Bunny high, speaking, moving and sipping at heart-palpitation speed. Or it could be the free Wi-Fi.

Fueled by comforting scents of vanilla, hazelnut and mocha, coffee shop conversations dip into uncharted territories. They form the foundation of first dates and mend bridges of lapsed friendships.

Over the whirl of the coffee grinder, my friend feels safe enough to share fears of the future. Between sips, we reminisce about old memories and discuss the six months we have been apart. In the coffee shop, time stops.

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Dia de los Muertos

While miniature American versions of superheroes, pirates and princesses head home to sleep off sugar-induced comas, Latin Americans south of the border flood into graveyards with candles, skeletons and mariachis.

Instead of the spooks and frights of Halloween, millions throughout Latin America celebrate the Day of the Dead on Nov. 1 and 2, a commemoration of friends and family members who have died.

“It’s not a morbid celebration at all,” history professor Stephen Andes said as he described celebrating the Day of the Dead in Sonora, Mexico. “At its core, it’s a celebration for family to get together to make a link with loved ones – even after they’re gone.”

During the two-day holiday, families visit the graves of deceased loved ones to clean the tombstones and decorate the sites with bright flowers and candles.

Celebrants work throughout the night.

Celebrants work throughout the night.

Food contributes to a carnival-like atmosphere.

“There’s food vendors selling tamales and traditional candies like calaveras, or skulls made out of sugar,” Andes said.

Sugar skull candies range in intricacy.

Sugar skull candies range in intricacy.

Celebrants decorate the tombs and homemade altars with items that represent the deceased, Spanish professor and Costa Rican-native Lidia Byrd said.

“If they liked fruit, there’s fruit,” she said laughing. “If they liked tortillas, there are tortillas. If they liked mariachi, there are mariachis playing near the grave.”

Families also make pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, to eat at the gravesites, Byrd described. The sweet bread is flavored with anise seeds and decorated with sugar and bread pieces shaped like bones, which symbolize the dead.

Pan de muertos is traditionally served with coffee or hot chocolate.

Pan de muerto is traditionally served with coffee or hot chocolate.

The Day of the Dead’s emphasis on life is after death is a result of Mexican indigenous religions rather than a traditional part of Roman Catholicism.

“For us, when someone dies it is a continuation of the life,” Byrd said.

In an effort to obtain more Catholic converts, Spanish conquerors in the 1600s combined the Aztec celebration of the dead with the religious holidays of All Saint’s Day, Nov. 1, and All Soul’s day, Nov. 2.

The result, Andes said, is a holiday that is uniquely Latin American.

“I think you can see the Day of the Dead celebrates a lot more whimsical, lighthearted intimacy with death,” Andes said, contrasting the holiday to the American tradition of Halloween.

“Halloween is a completely different holiday. It’s all about being scary. They might be around the same time, but that’s not what Day of the Dead is about.”

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Pulled to Tradition

I can count the number of weddings I have attended on one hand. Maybe two, including ceremonies I was young enough to witness in diapers.

But countless hours of “Cake Boss” and “Ace of Cakes” taught me the importance of buttercream frosting, fondant roses and intricate piping. Everyone pays attention to the wedding cake.

So following my oldest cousin Amanda’s incense-filled nuptial mass, I knew to keep an eye out for a white, sugary tower.

Found it.

Found it.

The reception room pulsed with lights and body heat as Amanda and her ten bridesmaids surrounded the triple-tiered confection. Each grabbed a white satin ribbon that protruded from the cake.

With varying degrees of grace, the bridesmaids pulled, revealing silver charms. Licking off the extra icing, the women held up their prizes. Everyone cheered.

“What’s that?” a man who had acquainted himself with the open bar slurred.

“Cake pulls,” a fellow witness answered. “It’s a Southern thing. Very New Orleans.”

According to Southern tradition, each pull holds a special meaning.

According to Southern tradition, each pull holds a special meaning.

The Victorian-influenced tradition is simple: guests select ribbons connected to silver charms. Each charm symbolizes a different meaning, from luck and prosperity to romance and upcoming marriage. Sometimes brides let guests pick at random, others select specific messages for pullers.

Amanda chose the latter, which is how one bridesmaid knew the significance of pulling a fleur de lis.

“It’s because I just moved to New Orleans,” she said. “It stands for a new beginning.”

As the bridesmaids moved away, Amanda and her new husband took their inaugural bites, missing once and laughing continuously.

Two hundred guests later, the cake was gone.

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Trick or Treat?

Rip. Crunch. Chew. Swallow. Halloween candy disappears in mindless raze.

Even the most disciplined dietitians crumble in the sugar-soaked holiday’s wake. It’s impossible to stop with just one piece.

While ghosts and witches elicit screams and terror, the scariest part of Halloween lies in the bottom of pillowcases and plastic pumpkins. Seemingly innocent “fun-sized” chocolate bars and candy hold a horrifyingly high amount of fat, sugar and calories.

What’s worse, the individually wrapped treats rarely include nutritional information. Instead, companies list calories and ingredients on the wholesale bags.

So, before you inhale your sixth miniature Snickers, take a moment to realize what you’re putting into your body.

Halloween takes no prisoners.

Halloween takes no prisoners.

Here’s some of Halloween’s most popular candies. Information from Cooking Light.

1. M&M’s Milk Chocolate Fun Size

73 calories, 2g saturated fat, 9.3g sugar

2. M&M’s Peanut Fun Size

90 calories, 1.8g saturated fat, 9g sugar

3. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Fun Size 

77 calories, 2.7g saturated fat, 7g sugar

4. Branch’s Candy Corn

53 calories, 0g saturated fat, 11.7g sugar

5. Snickers Fun Size

80 calories, 1.5g saturated fat, 8.5g sugar

6. Sour Patch Kids Mini Bag

50 calories, 0g fat, 10g sugar

7. Baby Ruth Fun Size

85 calories, 2.3g saturated fat, 10g sugar

8. Tootsie Pop

60 calories, 0g saturated fat, 10g sugar (contains trans fat)

9. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Snack Size

110 calories, 2.5g saturated fat, 11g sugar

10. Skittles Fun Size

60 calories, 0.7g saturated fat, 11.3g sugar

11. Almond Joy Snack Size

80 calories, 3g saturated fat, 8g sugar

12. Twix Fun Size

80 calories, 3g saturated fat, 8g sugar

13. Kit Kat Wafer Bar Snack Size

 70 calories, 2.3g saturated fat, 7g sugar

14. Starburst Fun Size

2 Starburst candies: 40 calories, 0.8g saturated fat, 6g sugar

15. Milk Duds Snack Size

53 calories, 1.2g saturated fat, 9g sugar

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Losing Control

It’s a test: twelve choices of cold, creamy frozen yogurt.

Staring at my options, I debate between chocolate, peanut butter, pistachio and banana nut bread. Tough decision.

What keeps me up at night.

What keeps me up at night.

Seven sample cups later, I’m slightly full and increasingly torn. Pistachio it is.

I pull the lever and pour one, two, three swirls around the bathtub-sized “cup.” It’s time to move on to toppings.

In a move half science, half artistry, I add cookie dough and chocolate sprinkles to my froyo. My sister suggests condensed milk. I acquiesce.

The artist at work.

The artist at work.

The combination scale/cash register reveals the damage. I walk away 6 oz. heaver and $4.37 lighter.

The first bite tastes heavenly; the second, just as good. But three bites into my masterpiece I hit a wall.

I’m full.

But I keep eating. By the time I finish, I’m uncomfortable.

I’ve always had difficulty with portion control. The deadly combination of eyes-bigger-than-stomach syndrome plus there’s-starving-children-in-Africa guilt created a supersized problem.

With its unlimited samples, massive cups and generous self-serve set-up, Yogurtland presents a particularly challenging environment.

However, it isn’t unique. Most restaurants and fast food chains offer more than we can, and should, chew. In the past twenty years alone, serving sizes increased by more than 30 percent.

Likewise, super stores like Sam’s Club and Costco fuel the portion distortion. We can buy more, so we do.

Curbing our appetites can be difficult, but it’s possible. Taking the time to consciously eat and enjoy each bite keeps us from overindulging.

Maybe if we prioritize quality over quantity, it will make eating a little sweeter.

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