There was a time in my youth—maybe six weeks, if I had to approximate, which must have been a very long time for my mother—when I listened to Madonna’s Live to Tell on repeat for hours on end. Hours, people. And oh, goodness, Madonna understood. Clearly the secret I wanted to live to tell wasn’t all that important, because I can remember neither the tale I had to tell nor who needed to hear it. But it was there, with me, suspended heavily in the air like my legs off the floor of back seat of our silver Volvo 840.
The thing is, I do remember putting the emphasis on the telling—not on the living. Today—a few years wiser, maybe, and slightly more experienced with health complications—I wonder sometimes what I’m living to tell.
As more and more of my relatives enter their anecdotage, it becomes clear to me that humans are predisposed to a good yammer. We all live to tell something, and to tell it over and over. The topic varies, though—some people want to talk family history, others want to rehash the past, and still others just want to have a story to tell about every topic that comes up. Telling is remembering. Or it’s proving you’re smarter than someone else, but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that doesn’t ever apply to me or you.
Back to me, though. What am I doing now that will stay with me? Sometimes it’s hard to know, but once in a while, in a blinding flash of clarity, I know I’m living a moment that will be with me forever. My father teaching my son how to lick an ice cream cone. Walking past the explosion of daffodils each spring on the corner of 1st and 73rd. New England’s ice storm of 1998. Watching my husband stand on the bed, using the cat as a flyswatter against some unwanted bug. Cornering my sister at a family wine dinner, whispering to her that I was pregnant, and watching her get ridiculously drunk downing all her own wine and all of mine as well.
What I do know, very clearly, is that I want something to stick with me. And I want it to stick for a really, really long time.
There’s a point in every person’s life, I suppose, when one recognizes ones own mortality. I think for most youngish adults, the realization comes (if it does come that early) as a result of some sort of trauma—a car crash, maybe, or a bad fall. For me, it came in the form of a very long, very big needle.
Nine months ago, I had a kidney biopsy. I thought it was routine; the doctor intended to get a baseline measurement of how my organs were working, in case of any future complications. The next day, he called me and told me my kidneys were on the verge of failing. Between dinner and breakfast, we decided which chemotherapy treatment I’d try, and the following day, I cancelled a trip to San Diego and headed to the hospital. I’ll be telling that story for a while, I’m sure.
And now? Well, now my kidneys are fine. There’s nothing wrong with them. Nada. Zilch. Problems gone. When I go in for a check-up, my nephrologist (who has purple hair and a nose piercing, how Seattle is that?) is clearly bored. But somehow, on my lower back, right below my ribs, I feel a keen sense of awareness, a constant sense of care that I take with me everywhere. It’s a sense of living, after realizing for the first time that my own life is inevitably limited. And lately—maybe it’s this whole clean eating thing—I’ve been much more aware of taking care of those kids.
Last year, I met a woman whose condition is similar to mine, only sixty thousand times more dramatic. She’s a food writer and blogger. Her name is Jess. She has lupus. (Sound familiar?) She lives in San Francisco, and she’s my lupus superhero.
See, Jess approaches her disease with grace. She accepts that her life has to be different, but doesn’t mope or whine; she exudes an energetic peace that any perfectly healthy person would admire. She practically oozes happy, leaving behind her a wake of hope and cheerfulness that I’m not sure anyone could ignore. Her kidneys are much more sensitive than mine—so sensitive, in fact, that she has to eat entirely sodium-free, to make sure her kidneys stay happy. In her kitchen, she replaces salt with cups and cups of creativity. This month, she’s celebrating National Heart Health Month on her blog, Sodium Girl, by asking bloggers and readers to consider the USDA’s newest dietary guidelines, which (among other things) recommend that Americans cut way back on their salt intake. It’s called the Love Your Heart Recipe Rally. And that recipe up there? Your heart will love it.
But, okay, I really didn’t do it for my heart. I did it because even though my kidneys are healthy now, I want to become more constantly cognizant of what I’m feeding them, so that they last as long as humanly possible. So they live to tell. Naturally, that should mean less salt.
So, I don’t mean to get all serious on you here, but do me a favor: Take a moment. Here. Now. Is there one thing you can do that will make you healthier? It might not necessarily be cutting out salt entirely, and it might not have anything to do with salt. It might mean eating more green vegetables. It might mean drinking red wine instead of hard liquor, because at least wine arguably has a couple health benefits. Or it might mean making a batch of crunchy curried cumin crackers, so you stop snacking on your son’s outrageously salty Goldfish crackers six times a day.
Realistically, I don’t think I can cut out sodium altogether. And I don’t plan on it. But if I can choose one thing today to do differently in my kitchen that pleases the kids, maybe I’ll be able to choose something else next month. Of course, the spirit of the Recipe Rally is to remake a specific salty food, replacing it with a low-sodium alternative. I chose those Goldfish. Readers, I love you. But there is no way in hell you’ll find me cutting anything out in 3/4” fish shapes, especially when I can’t guarantee the correct proportion of swimmers with that special smile. And strike me down for lack of ambition, but I wasn’t sure I could mimic that awesome orange color without a special trip to a chemical plant.
So I made a different cracker. It’s got a base of masa harina, a finely ground corn flour, and ground curry, which gives it the pleasing sunny hue that I associate with mindless snacking, which, in this case, is a good thing. I added an egg, canola oil, and some sodium-free baking powder for body, and stuffed the dough with flavorful seeds that become little grenades between the teeth—things like whole fennel, cumin, and mustard seed. There’s a bit of sugar, which guarantees addiction (let’s work with one vice at a time, please), but there’s no salt added. Half a batch in, I certainly don’t miss it, and I feel a little smug knowing that someday, my kidneys (and, okay fine, my heart) might live to tell me thanks.
I’m sorry, what was that? You have a Madonna song stuck in your head now? You can thank me later.
Made with whole seeds that burst between your teeth, releasing little time bombs of earthy flavor, these easy-to-make crackers aren’t for spreading or dipping. They’re for eating. For something a little spicy, add a pinch of cayenne pepper. For best flavor, use fresh spices. And you know what? They really taste best the second or third day.
Time: 20 minutes active time
Makes: 4 servings
Spray vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups masa harina
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon sesame seeds (white or black)
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons ground curry powder
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
2 teaspoons baking powder (sodium-free)
1/2 cup canola oil
1 large egg
1/2 cup warm water
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 12” by 18” baking sheet with vegetable oil, and set aside.
Combine all the dry ingredients in the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and blend on low speed until mixed. With the machine running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream, then add the egg, then the warm water. Mix until the dough comes together and there are no dry spots left at the bottom of the bowl. (You may have to add another tablespoon of water.)
Scatter the dough out across the prepared baking sheet, and gently pat it evenly into the pan. Using a small rolling pin or a wine bottle (I find the latter works best), roll the dough into an even, thin layer, rolling all the way to the edges. Use a small, sharp knife to score the dough all the way through to the sheet into crackers of any shape, and trim the edges. (You can make squares or triangles, but anything bigger than about 2” in either direction may crack while baking.)
Spray the crackers all over with vegetable oil spray, and bake for 30 minutes, rotating once halfway through, or until the crackers are firm and the edges are light golden brown. Let cool completely on baking sheets, gently break apart, and serve. Store cooled crackers in an airtight container.