The Great Greek Yogurt Conspiracy

24 Oct

Has anyone else noticed how Greek yogurt is everywhere lately? Or I guess I should say “Greek-style” yogurt, because at least in the UK, you can’t call it Greek yogurt if it’s not made in Greece. Just ask Chobani — they’re the most popular Greek [style] yogurt in the US, but got kicked out of the UK because Athens-made Fage sued them, saying Greek yogurt must be made in Greece using a particular straining process and cannot contain additives and preservatives. Chobani said “this isn’t over,” but for now, the UK yogurt aisle is full of the superior Fage Total, Liberte, and a bunch of impostors.

I don’t normally get worked up about things like this. I buy almost everything generic and go out of my way to walk to Aldi to save money. But the other day I learned the hard way that Greek yogurt is not something to scrimp on.

First, let me explain why Greek yogurt has become such a health food buzz word. As Fage argued against Chobani, what makes Greek yogurt Greek is the straining processed. This is most important because it makes the yogurt extra thick with extra protein. That’s why I like it — the protein boost, and that’s why Greek [style] yogurt has become so pervasive. Somebody somewhere on some health site said that Greek yogurt was the healthiest, best snack ever. And a bunch of non-Greek yogurt companies decided to cash in.

As I mentioned earlier, Fage Total is the authentic and best Greek yogurt, but it’s also the most expensive. Here is the nutritional information I took off their website:

fage total nutrition57 calories per 100g and 10.3g protein.

jeremy clarkson not bad
However, I usually don’t splurge for Fage because I put plain yogurt in my breakfast overnight oats and the superior creaminess and taste of Fage doesn’t shine through. So I buy Liberte, which is a Canadian brand that is always on sale at Waitrose. It’s nutritional information is similar enough to Fage:

Liberte uk nutrition9.6g protein as opposed to 10.3g, but still, not bad.

But last week I had a moment of weakness. I wanted individual pots of flavored Greek yogurt to have as a snack. I was in the queue at Aldi, which was so long it snaked around to the dairy section (I realize that makes no sense to you if you haven’t been to the store, but trust me, the queue was long), and noticed 4-packs of Greek-style yogurt. I grabbed one, quickly looked at the protein content, and thought, “6g, not bad.”

jeremy clarkson not badAnd the 4-pack was less than £1, so I bought two different flavors. And then I got home and tasted the “Greek-style” yogurt. It was no Fage. It wasn’t even Liberte. It tasted — and I hate to say this, because I don’t want to be one of those OMG CHEMICALS AND UNCLEAN FOOD people — but it tasted fake. So I did what I should have done while back at the store — I looked at the ingredient list. Keep in mind that Fage and Liberte have the same 2 ingredients: milk and cultures, that’s it. I understand flavored yogurt will have more, but check this out:

aldi greek yogurt nutritionMaize starch and pork gelatin.

This “Greek-style” yogurt should not be called Greek yogurt not because it’s not made in Greece, but because it’s not strained. It’s thickened artificially with maize starch and pork gelatin. Unless you happen to prefer extra thick yogurt, this “Greek” yogurt is nothing more than regular yogurt with thickening agents. And the “not bad” 6g of protein I saw was per 125g pot — it only has 4.8g per 100g, which is less than half of Fage and Liberte.

This, friends, is why you have to be cautious of food trends. Everybody and their brother makes “Greek-style” yogurt now, but few are the nutritional powerhouses they claim to be. And now I’ll get off my Greek yogurt soapbox to show you this photo of a dapper autumn pug that I found on my external hard drive in a folder marked “Cute Animals” that I have no recollection of creating years ago:

pug blazer

It’s the second week of October, Merry Christmas!

9 Oct

And now, part II of a feature I started in December 2011: Things White Middle Class People Get Overly Worked Up About.

On Monday during my weekly grocery shop in the rain (sans umbrella because the Fitbit-wearing left arm must always be free to swing and the right arm must pull the trolley) I saw chocolate Santas at Aldi. It didn’t really register with me, and I went onto Sainsbury’s. There I saw an aisle of Christmas gift suggestions. At Waitrose I saw Christmas poppers. And then it dawned on me that even though my parents and I had just booked our trip to Biltmore for December, it was still only the second week of October.

Had this been in America, there would have been an uprising — angry mobs with Halloween- and Thanksgiving-themed pitchforks. There’s an understood rule in the U.S. that you do not celebrate anything Christmas-related until after Thanksgiving. (6pm on Thanksgiving to be exact, or maybe earlier this year, I haven’t seen any Black Friday doorbuster ads yet). To get an idea of how worked up Americans get over this, take a look at these comics:

santa turkey comic
thanksgiving christmas comic
could we finish thanksgiving dinner first

thanksgiving mall decorations
As you can see, Americans get really riled up about this — but why? Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, as the song goes. Why don’t they want to get a jump start on it? I doubt they really care about how Mr. Turkey feels getting passed over (judging by the comics, he’d like that!).

Turkey christmas music

pumpkin santa turkey comic All I can think of is that it’s about time. As Jim Steinman wrote in Meat Loaf’s song “Heaven Can Wait”: “And all I’ve got is time until the end of time.” If you want to get deep about it, time really is all we have — everything else like health, wealth and happiness can extend our time and make it more enjoyable, but once it’s gone, we can’t get it back. Adam Carolla joked on his podcast that old people continually wake up and eat earlier and earlier in the hopes that one day they’ll actually gain a day back by moving everything forward (like showing up for Thanksgiving dinner so early that you arrive on Wednesday night instead). We don’t want to think about December in October because it’s like skipping over two whole months we’ll never get back, and we’re supposed to “live every day to the fullest.” On the other hand, I like getting into the Christmas spirit early (maybe not second week of October early, but November will do). Since I head back to the U.S. for Thanksgiving through Christmas, I would miss out on the London festivities if they didn’t start so early (and they’re allowed to start early since Thanksgiving is not a thing and Halloween barely is). I get that people feel like retailers are taking advantage of them by pushing the holidays too soon, but think of it the other way — if people started at least thinking about Christmas gift ideas a little earlier (not even buying yet), then there’d be less stress and rush in December. But of course, life is all about prolonging the inevitable, isn’t it?

Falling in love with fall and running (and, OK, pumpkin spice)

2 Oct

I think fall might be my favorite season, and not for your stereotypical white girl reasons.

psl white girlAlthough I did run to Waitrose (literally, I was awkwardly sweating in the queue) to overpay for a can of Libby’s pumpkin to make pumpkin spice overnight oats and pumpkin spice smoothies (which are better than pumpkin spice lattes because I use pumpkin spice tea and they also don’t cost £5 (is that what a PSL costs? It’s been a while since I’ve been to Starbucks).

pumpkin spice girls

ANYWAY…

The reason I like fall (OK, autumn, since I’m in the UK) is because it’s the perfect running weather — not I-need-3-tissues-just-to-wipe-my-sweat summer hot or dear-god-how-is-it-25-out-that’s-F-not-C winter cold. Since I officially booked my flight home for Thanksgiving, I decided it’s high time I start training for the Thanksgiving 10K again. Last year it was my very first race ever and it was amazing. Yes, it was 25 degrees out (that’s -4 C) and I had to weave my way through an obscene amount of other runners, but I got such a thrill. I remember sprinting to the finish and even running to the car after. It was a stark difference from my 5K in April which I finished huffing and puffing and feeling defeated. Part of that could have been a bug coming on, but I also think I hadn’t been training properly. Part of me feared I peaked on Thanksgiving last year and I haven’t been running the same since. I’ve just been plodding along, taking a walking break the minute any part of my body felt remotely uncomfortable.

Eventually the reality of the race in less than 2 months set in and the weather got cooler and I decided to get serious about running again. Last Tuesday, the day after that ominous day, I ran 5K under 30 minutes, something I haven’t done since last fall. And then two days ago I did it again — but even faster. And today — yep, you guessed it, even faster. I’m starting to fall in love with running again. There’s just something about that cool breeze, the perfect Spotify playlist (thank you all-you-can-eat data plan) and going for a “high score.” Running may be a competitive sport with professionals and prizes and actual human beings that can run a marathon at a pace of 4 minutes, 41.5 seconds per mile (how?!! I’m not sure I could maintain that speed for 50 meters), but ultimately it’s about competing against yourself, setting new goals and personal records — high scores (or I guess low scores if we’re going by time and pace). This year my goal is to finish the Thanksgiving 10K in under an hour (or right on the dot, I won’t be picky). Months ago that seemed like a pipe dream, but if I can maintain my current 5K pace for twice as long, it may just become a reality. I know there will be thousands of people in the race who are faster than me (I recently read a blog by a runner coming back from an injury who was disappointed by his 30 minute 5K time, saying “I don’t know if you can even call that running.” Here I am rejoicing about a 30 minute 5K), but I just need to be faster than 2013 Renee. As my Over the Rhine T-shirt says, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

‘Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all

26 Sep

I’d like to thank everyone for the outpouring of love and support my family and I received since my last post. It’s going to be a rough next few months (especially once I’m home again), but it’s good to know the little dude was loved, even by those who only knew him through his annual Christmas letter and my Facebook photos.

If by chance that last heart wrenching post gained me any new followers, welcome. I promise I don’t always post such emotional entries. We’ll get back to fat pugs, complaining about the weather, grocery shopping, baby pandas and zebra wieners in due time. But first, some more mourning talk.

My first real experience with death was with my childhood guinea pigs. Mr. G. crossed over the rainbow bridge at our home, while Hershey required veterinary assistance. At the time my little heart had never felt such sadness, and I dealt with it the only way 11-year-old Renee knew how: by crying and writing dozens of poems and stories about them. If you’ve ever seen or had a guinea pig, you know that they don’t do much — eat, poop, repeat.

guinea pigs eating

But my younger self gave them each personalities and elaborate back-stories and lives. Those two deaths affected me so strongly, yet we had four other guinea pigs after them. As I was speaking to my mom the other day I had to ask her about each of their deaths because I honestly could not remember. I felt so bad, but then I realized that’s probably the best thing that could happen — I remembered them in their best of times and not in their last. It makes me almost feel guilty that I was not there for Squirt in the end because my images of him are not at his worst. I’ve been dreaming about him a lot lately, but in my dreams he’s always youthful, running around the kitchen like Speedy Gonzales as he used to do after a bath, or chasing after his rope in the backyard — two things he hasn’t done in many years. My parents and I have been texting memories and photos back and forth.

“I just don’t want to forget anything about him,” my mom said to me the day after they put him down. It seemed almost silly — with old home videos and both print and digital photos in the thousands, that seemed impossible. But then I realized with grief comes nostalgia. As I said in my last post, in the end he was not the same dog anymore. Even if he lived 10 more years, he would never walk down to the lake lot or fetch a rope again. So while I will miss even his annoying “Feed me!” bark, what I really miss is the old times, just like I miss my old schools, apartments, jobs and friends and the memories I made with them. But life goes on. You remember the good, try to forget the bad, and make new memories. Even though I am alive and well, my mom can still be nostalgic for Baby Renee, since I no longer make animal noises or get food all over my face when I eat … OK, maybe those were bad examples (moooooo).

This year I made a new friend in London whom I really got along with, but she recently moved away. In a fit of sadness a part of me thought “If I had never met her then I wouldn’t be sad right now.” But you could say that about every relationship that ended, pet that passed or friend who moved. We would have less sadness, sure, but we’d also have less joy from the good times we did have together. Alfred Lord Tennyson said it best, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all.” And as Elphaba and Glinda sing in Wicked, “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” (I saw the musical with my friend who moved and told that to her before she left.)

So now I’m trying to just focus on the good memories. I’ve pulled myself out of my pit of sadness. Just today I was finally able to look at the pugs frolicking in the park and smile instead of thinking “How cute, but one day they’re all going to DIE.” (Yes, I became Emo Elmo for a bit recently). Both my parents and I had the same thought as we were going through the last few weeks — we can’t go through this again. We can’t get another dog. Instead of the happy memories I could make with my hypothetical pug or corgi, I was focusing on the fact that one day it would die. My parents were too. It’s still too soon for them to even entertain the notion — it’s like asking a widow at her husband’s funeral if she thinks she’ll remarry. But I told them not to get rid of his crate — disassemble it and store it away, but hang on to it… just in case.

(And now, for no reason at all, a baby panda!)

baby panda bars

Crossing the rainbow bridge

22 Sep

It seems the inevitable could be prolonged no longer. This afternoon Squirt crossed over the rainbow bridge at the vet’s office. When I worked in the pet industry I thought that was such a silly phrase — “cross over the rainbow bridge,” but now it seems fitting. “Died” is too harsh, “passed away” too proper. So “cross over the rainbow bridge” it is.

Even though we had a month to prepare for this, you’re never really ready. We got Squirt when he was 1 year old and had him for 14 years — more than half my life. I should speak fondly of him, saying he was a good dog, but as any friend or family member (or repairman) who visited my parents’ house over the past 14 years can attest, he was a mean little bugger. But he came from a troubled background, years before my job would entail reading and writing about dog training, so we did the best we could as inexperienced as we were.

Though it’s sad to say goodbye — especially from across the ocean — lately he hasn’t been the same dog we adopted on July 29, 2000. Over the course of his life he had two loves (no, not people and other dogs): walks and food. Neighbors used to joke that he was the most well-walked dog out there. When I was in high school I used to attach him to my Razor scooter and make him pull me around the neighborhood. (Yes, I made a 12-pound Chihuahua pull me like an Iditarod husky.) On our long walks pre-Fitbit I used to have to beg and pull him to turn around. As he got older, he slowly stopped walking so far and eventually was content to just explore the front yard, especially when he discovered he could get a treat for every time he went out. He had a one-track mind at that point: food. We could not enjoy a meal without him barking alongside us, all because 14 years ago someone decided to feed him a table scrap (who that someone is is still up for debate in my family). When I was back home just this April I had to sneak around the house during the day because if he noticed me, he’d start barking for his dinner two hours early. So when a month ago my mom told me he wouldn’t eat his dog food anyone, I knew something was wrong. He was not the same Squirt I knew. Over the past month he indulged in various people foods, from pancakes and eggs to fish and chicken until whatever was ailing him — canine cognitive disorder (doggie Alzheimer’s) and cancer, likely — prevented him from eating even boiled chicken. In a prime example of a head-on collision between comedy and tragedy, yesterday he sat in his food bowl, staring out into space. My parents sent me a photo and I could not stop laughing (and crying).  It was time. He would not eat or drink, could barely walk, and seemed to have no mental capacity left whatsoever. The inevitable could no longer be prolonged.

I want to thank my parents for taking such good care of him in his final days and for making the difficult decision to put him down while he was suffering. Know that however hard it was and while it might not seem like it right away, you did the right thing.

And little dude — I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you in the end, but I’m not sure you’d know who I was anyway. I’ll remember you at your best, like when I tried to enter you in a local dog show our first summer together and you almost bit the judge. One day I’ll see you again on the other side, probably by the unlimited cheese buffet. (And as the poem goes, we’ll cross the rainbow bridge together).

squirt christmas portrait(This ridiculous Christmas portrait they took at the kennel in 2005 never fails to make my family laugh.)

Coping with mortality and ancient Greek quizzes

9 Sep

When I was in high school I took Ancient Greek as an elective. While the rest of my class had a free period, three of us were conjugating irregular verbs in seven tenses. We were overachievers who bordered on masochistic. At different times we each thought about quitting, saying screw the aorist active optative, and go back to studying and goofing off with the rest of our classmates, but we never went through with it. I remember one particular morning we had a big biology test coming up. None of us could focus on Greek vocabulary when there was the Krebs cycle to memorize. So we came up with a brilliant plan – we would ask our teacher to push back the Greek quiz a day. If all three of us agreed and asked, she’d have to, right? And she did. And thus began a very dangerous journey down a dangerous path. Greek quiz dates were not set in stone. So whenever a quiz fell on the same day as another class’s test, or even if one of us just didn’t feel like studying the night before, we asked for an extension. And by “we,” I often mean “me,” as I was the only girl and the others claimed the teacher “liked me” (for the moment). Every time I would ask her to move the quiz she would say the same thing – “Alright, but you’re just prolonging the inevitable.” I believe at one point we even started asking for it that way – “can we prolong the inevitable?” We knew eventually we’d have to regurgitate vocab and conjugate verbs, but in that moment the weight was lifted off and the third declension became Tomorrow Renee’s problem.

Why am I writing about this? Because my teacher’s words have been going through my head lately regarding our family dog, Squirt – “you’re only prolonging the inevitable.”

Two and a half weeks ago my mom sent me a text message: “Squirt has been having a rough few days. Not looking good. He can’t get out of bed. He won’t eat today.”

It was completely out of the blue – just four months prior he was going on hikes and begging me for dinner two hours early. He’s 15 years old, I knew his “time” was coming, but I wasn’t ready. And so began a spiral of sorrow in which Stephen questioned how I will ever be able to handle the death of my parents if I act this way over a dog who doesn’t even live with me and isn’t even that nice.

I continued to text my parents every day for updates. He’d seem better, then worse, so eventually they took him to the vet. He had a fever and they gave him fluids and antibiotics and said if he didn’t spring back the next day, it was time to talk the big “E.”

I waited anxiously for my mom’s text that next morning.

“Squirt is better today. He’s up and around and eating.” I was so relieved!

“He’s still old though,” she added.

I could hear my teacher’s words: “You’re only prolonging the inevitable.”

Still, we let out a collective sigh of relief and I resigned that Squirt would beat the record for oldest Chihuahua (20 years).

A part of me almost said, “What a relief, I’m glad I won’t have to go through that again!” as if because he survived this one brush with death he was never going to die.

Just prolonging the inevitable.

Every day my parents text me updates.

“He ate all his food!”

“He’ll only eat people food.”

“He’s not doing well.”

“He crapped everywhere!”

“He dumped outside on his own!”

“He’s up and around!”

“Bad morning, he won’t eat at all.”

We think he has canine cognitive disorder, which is like doggie dementia or Alzheimer’s, so sometimes he forgets where he is or what’s going on. And like those patients, he has good and bad days. The good days make me think he’s going to live forever, the bad days that he’s old and his organs are probably shutting down and the end is near. Yesterday was a good day, today is bad. This yo-yo effect is exhausting and disheartening and I’m not even there – my poor parents have been there to comfort, cook and clean for him. We’ve had Squirt half my life and it’s hard to imagine life without him. (Whenever we talk like this, one of us always chimes in imitating Squirt’s voice saying, “I’m not dead yet!”) My parents are doing all they can, even though there’s not much we can do now – just prolong the inevitable. But if I learned anything from Greek class, that’s what life is – prolonging the inevitable and savoring the time you have.

 

Istanbul was Constantinople, Now it’s Istanbul not Constantinople

7 Sep

A week ago we went to Istanbul, Turkey. I believe Istanbul can be summed up in this one photo I took:

essence of istanbulSomething really old and historical (Column of Constantine on the left, from 330 A.D), a mosque and a stray cat. In reality, the city has a crapload of history, a crapload of mosques (is that sacrilegious to say?) and a crapload of stray dogs and cats, so I’m oversimplifying it a bit.

We did a full-day walking tour of Sultanahmet our first day there, which was full of all of the above. We saw Topkapi Palace, the underground basilica cistern, the Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, an Ottoman cemetery, the Column of Constantine and the Grand Bazaar. If anyone reading this post found it because they’re actually curious about Istanbul tours and not the usual fat pugs and zebra penises (my top blog search terms), we used Efendi Travel. The tour was reasonably priced considering it included hotel pickup and admission to all the sites and we got to go to the front of the queue most of the time. I would recommend them. They said the group tours usually have 8 to 10 people, but our group only had 3 — including Stephen and me, so it was almost a private tour for the price of a group tour.

Anyway…

The main reason we did the tour was for peace of mind and safety — though friends and random strangers on the Internet assured me Istanbul was perfectly safe, we were a little concerned about the recent protests and the fact that Turkey shares a border with Syria and Iraq (although Istanbul is 800 miles away from that border). I was also a little nervous visiting a predominantly Muslim country for the first time. Did I need to act or dress a certain way to fit in? While I did have to wear a headscarf inside the Blue Mosque (and take off my shoes), I soon realized that while the majority of Istanbul is Muslim, a lot of them seem to be Muslim in the way that people who only go to church on Christmas are Christian — i.e. few were flocking to the mosques five times a day for prayer and most women were not wearing headscarves outside the mosque (and the only ones wearing full burqas were visiting from other countries). The Sultanahmet area is also at least 87% tourists I think. Still, it was interesting to hear the call to prayer resound from the minarets of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia while we were near and to experience a different culture.

Now for the animal pictures! We had another woman in our tour group who often got separated from us because she was photographing some historic building or monument. I often got separated because I was photographing cats or dogs. You can see the main sights of Istanbul on Google, so here are my favorite stray animals of Istanbul pics:

(Click to enlarge)

Stray dogs of Topkapi Palace, assemble!

topkapi palace dogs

dogs of topkapi palaceturkey stray dogs

istanbul stray dogsking of the mountain

istanbul cat

istanbul dog

cat placing order

“Um, I believe I was next to be served.”

istanbul cat hungry

istanbul kitten

Stephen and I played with this kitten instead of learning anything about the Ottoman cemetery we were at.

cute istanbul kitten

Not a stray animal, but look, Panda ice cream!

panda ice cream

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