Sunday, August 26, 2007

Desperately seeking cereal that has no sugar or salt


(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel August 26, 2007)

My husband is nothing if not consistent.

Every morning for the past 28 years, he has eaten a variation on the same breakfast -- a bowl of heart-healthy oat-based cereal topped with fruit. The fruit changes from season to season, usually following whatever is locally available at the time.

During the years, his choice of moistening agents has evolved. A long time ago, he may have used milk, but I barely remember that period. For years, he has poured soy milk over his fruit and grain mixture. Before that, unsweetened fruit juice. Recently, he has been testing out plain no-fat yogurt, an addition I would have no interest in eating with my cereal, but one he seems to find tasty.

The one ingredient in my husband's healthful breakfast that has remained constant for decades is the cereal itself. The name that has earned his unyielding loyalty for all these years is Nature O's, made by Arrowhead Mills.

Nature O's looks a lot like Cheerios but without the added sweetener or salt. Made only from organic oat flour, brown rice flour and wheat germ, Nature O's has provided Ralph with a completely fulfilling meal that is healthy and tastes good.

"I can't understand why anyone would want to put salt on their cereal," is his usual response to most prepackaged breakfast offerings. "Cereal doesn't need salt to taste good."

Unfortunately, most of America disagrees.

Go into any grocery store -- health food or mainstream mercantile -- and the cereal aisle will yield a dazzling array of day-starting meal options. But a close look on each box's ingredient panel shows that almost all contain some salt and sugar. There are a few brands of puffed cereal without sodium and, of course, there is plain uncooked oatmeal, but if you desire an oat-based cereal with a pleasant crunch, Nature-O's is the only brand available.

I should say, was the only brand available, because a few months ago Arrowhead Mills, now a part of The Hain Celestial Group, Inc., discontinued Nature O's. That put my husband into a major funk.

"What am I going to eat?" he asked, distraught.

You would think the world had ended. In a small way, for a person with such set patterns, it had.

I reassured Ralph that we would find something else and set off on an ambitious search for a cereal substitute. In every store I visited -- and I went to every kind of grocery store imaginable -- I sought out the cereal aisle. What I found was an abundance of oat-based circle-shaped cereals, but none without added salt or sweetener.

"Try this one," became my weekly mantra as I brought home yet another less-that-ideal alternative. "It only has 9 percent sodium."

It only took one bowlful before that cereal was deemed to be A) too salty, B) too sweet, or C) the wrong kind of crunch and too salty or sweet. Much to my 15-year-old son's delight, our pantry began looking a lot like the grocery store cereal aisle. In true teenage there's-never-enough-to-eat-around-here fashion, Toby took full advantage of this newfound source of breakfast options.

There are dozens of oat-based cereals out there with all sorts of fancy titles. General Mills, the company that manufactures Cheerios, offers eight versions of its cereal. There are MultiGrain, Berry Burst, Yogurt Burst, Frosted, Fruity, Apple and Honey Nut as well as the traditional Cheerios. With all those options you would think that a company that, according to its Web site, prides itself on providing "wholesome goodness" would offer at least one no-salt, sugar-free oat cereal option.

It doesn't. Neither do Kellogg's, Post, Quaker Oats, Kashi, Cascadian Farms or any of the many other cereal manufacturers.

That's odd, especially these days when the benefits of a reduced-sodium, low-sugar diet are so universally proclaimed by everyone from small-town doctors to vast government agencies. It is common knowledge that excessive salt intake contributes to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, kidney failure and a slew of other illnesses, while sugar is implicated in obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests a daily intake of no more than 1 teaspoon -- less than 2,300 milligrams -- of sodium daily. If you already suffer from hypertension, are middle-aged, elderly or of African-American descent, the government suggests limiting your sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams.

What my husband questions is why cereal manufacturers have to add salt at all when consumers could just as easily flavor their cereal themselves.

"If you want cereal to be salty, just use a salt shaker," he said.

I agree. Unfortunately, most people don't.

We are a salt- and sugar-loving nation, and that's the problem. Sodium and sweeteners are added to so many foods that it is nearly impossible to keep within the range of 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams a day if you eat typical American fare.

Lately, Ralph has been starting the day with a bowl of Oatios, an oat-based breakfast cereal manufactured by a company called New Morning. The salt (125 milligrams) and sugar (2 grams) content is still far higher than he would like it to be, but so far, this cereal is the closest he has found to his much-missed Nature O's.

As a loving wife, I wish I could solve my husband's breakfast dilemma. I wish I could conjure up a crunchy oat cereal in the oven the way you can re-create granola, but I can't. What I can do is continue to badger the cereal manufacturers with e-mail missives admonishing them for their lack of sodium-free options. With luck, some corporate honcho may listen and either bring back Nature O's or produce a similar healthful option.

Until then, Ralph will have to live on hope and a salty, sugary "alternative" breakfast. Yum.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I dig folk music and love to get a chance to hear it


(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel August 19, 2007)

When it comes to music, I'm fussy. I have very particular likes and dislikes

For starters, it has to be acoustic. No blasting bass, electric strings or discordant harmonies. The music I prefer is sweet to the ears with pleasing melodies and lyrics you can listen to, follow and understand.

I especially like story songs, ones that explain an emotion or situation. If they're funny, all the better.

You probably wouldn't recognize the names of many of the musicians whose songwriting skills I admire. Most belong to that seldom-applauded genre called folk music.

I know what you're thinking -- I say folk music and you conjure up images of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and protest songs of the 1960s.

Fair enough. That was the era I grew up in.

Baez and Mitchell were among the songsters whose albums (remember albums?) played repeatedly on the turntable in my bedroom. Their thought-evoking lyrics serenaded me to sleep at night and ran through my mind all day, especially during math class when Mr. Hornberger was trying to explain algebraic notation.

But that's ancient history.

These days, an entire new generation of balladeers has stepped up to the mike, lending their own perspective to age-old questions of love, loss, peace and war.

During the last weekend of August and again in September, folk-music aficionados like myself have much to look forward to. Three top-notch performers -- Carla Ulbrich, Cyd Ward and David Mallett -- are all coming to town.

On her Web page,, Ulbrich describes herself a "professional smart aleck." Not a bad call. The South Carolina native mixes humor with homespun tales of high school Spanish teachers, doctors' waiting rooms and trips to Waffle House. It's the combination of clever lyrics and pleasant melodies that endears Ulbrich to me.

I love her tune "What If Your Girlfriend Was Gone?" Although I've probably listened that amusing ditty hundreds of times on my MP3 player, I still chuckle at the witty lyrics.

Ulbrich will be playing in two places next weekend.

At 7 p.m. Friday she will be at Lakeside Music Room, 604 30th St. N.W. in Winter Haven. With respected Polk County musician Sally Anderson as host, an evening at Lakeside Music Room is an experience in and of itself.

It is officially labeled a "house concert" because the show takes place in a home instead of a public building. The listening room is a large two-level living room off Anderson's kitchen. Guests bring their own folding chairs and home-baked goodies to share during intermission. If you've ever desired an inexpensive opportunity to get up-close and personal with a professional musician, this is your chance.

Tickets to this intimate by-reservation-only concert are $10 at the door. Call first -- 863-293-1510 -- for directions and reservations.

Then, at 3 p.m. Aug. 26, Ulbrich visits Orlando for a concert sponsored by Central Florida Folk at Harry P. Leu Gardens, 1920 N. Forest Ave.

While not quite as cozy as listening to music in someone's living room, Central Florida Folk concerts are special in their own right. Come an hour early and enjoy a free stroll around Leu Gardens, one of the state's finest botanical gardens. Admission for the afternoon event is $12. A small assortment of refreshments are sold during intermission.

While Central Florida Folk is sponsoring several other concerts after Ulbrich's late-August booking (learn more at, I'm most excited about the Sept. 30 gig at Leu Gardens featuring David Mallett and opening act Cyd Ward.

Mallett ( is a Maine singer-songwriter whose passionate tales of small-town life and the passage of time strike a resounding note of familiarity with his listeners. Throughout his 30-plus-year career, artists such as Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Pete Seeger and even the Muppets have recorded Mallett's songs.

My husband has cataloged several dozen David Mallett tunes on his iPod -- we listen to them repeatedly.

Opening for Mallett is Central Florida's own Cyd Ward. Ralph and I discovered Ward many years ago while attending folk-music concerts in Lake County sponsored by Lake Eustis Folk. It was her beautiful voice that first captured our attention, but it wasn't long before we were won over by her skillfully crafted lyrics.

Ward's songs reflect a woman's perspective on love, family and community connections. Couple melodic tunes with the heartfelt, touching stories she tells, and you've got another winner. To have the chance to see Ward and Mallett together for the price of one admission is an unbeatable two-fer treat.

I can't quite figure why folk music is so under-appreciated. It's not all that different from country music, which has such a broad-based mega-following. Both genres tell stories and often have simple messages appealing to the masses.

Maybe it's because, unlike its flashy diamond-studded counterpart, folk music is an unpretentious and undemonstrative medium. Folk artists tell their tales quietly and melodiously without a lot of backup or fanfare. From coffeehouse to coffeehouse, theirs is a grass-roots effort to spread seeds of harmony and reconnection.

All I know is that this type of music rings true to me. If you think you'd like it too, check out the Central Florida Folk Web site or the Lakeside Music Room. Go to a concert, sit back, relax and enjoy the music. I bet you'll leave the concert humming. I know I will.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's time for stargazing -- and gazing inward


(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel August 12, 2007)

When our kids were little, August meant more than heat, humidity and afternoon thunderstorms. It signaled the start of stargazing season -- a chance to spend family time together outside beneath the evening sky.

For a good many years, when the Perseids meteor shower was at its peak, we abandoned the couch and turned off the TV. For that one night, the trampoline became our bed; the stars, our entertainment. We piled our prone bodies upon the trampoline's taut surface and directed our eyes upward.

Who would see the first falling star? How many could we count in an hour?

With our heads supported by fluffy pillows and blankets protecting us (somewhat) from pesky mosquitoes, we scanned the star-studded sky.

"There's one!" someone would shout.

"I missed it," another would inevitably whine.

"Wow! Did you see that one go by?" a third child's voice would suddenly exclaim.

And so it continued, star after shooting star after shooting star.

On a good night, we might spot dozens of glimmering beams streaking above us in a matter of minutes. Each sighting elicited squeals of delight.

Such magic in the darkness. Such treasure for the taking.

It was a pleasure to share this ancient spectacle with very young children. But even the powerful allure of shooting stars was no match for tired eyes and annoying insects. Bug bites and sleepiness eventually overtook even the most ardent observers. One by one, we would gather up our blankets, returning inside to the comfort of our mosquito-free home.

My kids are grown up now. I can't remember the last time I went outside at night and settled down on the trampoline, my head turned upward to gaze at the stars. Without children to motivate me, there are many things -- including searching the sky for shooting stars -- that I simply don't do.

Not this year, though.

Tonight, children or no children by my side, I'm heading back to the trampoline. The Perseids meteor shower is supposed to be especially viewable this year because its period of peak activity -- on or around today -- occurs during the August new moon. A new moon means the sky will be darker than usual and a dark sky is what you want when you are looking for stars.

In the course of an hour, an observant sky watcher whose viewing location is free from excessive man-made light can expect to see about 100 shooting stars pass overhead. That's more than one star per minute, well worth suffering a mosquito bite or two.

Stargazers have been fascinated by the Perseids meteor shower for about 2,000 years. Named for the constellation Perseus out of which it radiates, the meteor shower is one of the oldest on record. The Chinese first observed it in A.D. 34.

Although we call them falling stars, meteors are not really stars at all. They are small pieces of comets that have been shed when the comets orbit the sun. The name of the one that causes the Perseids meteor shower is Comet Swift-Tuttle. Those shooting flashes of light that dot the night sky are actually tiny bits of icy, dusty debris -- some no bigger than a grain of rice -- dislodged from the comet. These displaced fragments form what astronomers call a "stream" or "cloud" of debris. Every year when the Earth passes through this celestial mist of dusty rubble, friction from the upper atmosphere causes those particles to ignite. It is their vaporization that we see overhead. Most are extinguished before reaching the Earth. Those few that do manage to find land before burning up completely are called meteorites.

No matter what you call them -- shooting stars, falling stars or meteorites -- the sighting of brilliant light flashes across a dark sky is an exhilarating experience that has fascinated people for ages.

For me, just being out in the open air looking skyward is inspirational.

And a little scary.

It puts life into perspective and triggers introspective thinking. Infinite universe versus finite beings. So many possibilities. So little time to get it right.

Tonight, when I'm outdoors looking up, I won't just be searching the sky for shooting stars. I'll also be searching inwardly for peace and harmony. I'll be trying to catch those elusive beacons of hope and understanding as they flash by. And I'll be thinking of people around the globe sharing my vision.I hope you're among them.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Easy-care rain lilies love season's showers

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 5, 2007)

There are four flowers that speak to me more than any others. Just looking at them makes me smile.They are the daisy, sunflower, daffodil and rain lily.

A simple glance in their direction triggers these silent but salient missives: "Sunshine." "Happiness." And, "Don't worry."

These four flowers practically radiate cheerfulness and hope.

You are probably familiar with three of them. I'd like to introduce you to the fourth.

The daisy, sunflower and daffodil are as ubiquitous in the landscape as they are legendary. All but daffodils thrive in Central Florida's semitropical climate.

But it is the lesser-known rain lily that truly deserves attention. This modest flower is a horticultural marvel. It is easy to grow, attractive and unassuming. It is a floral emissary to optimism, an outlook on life I consider essential.

Like daffodils, rain lilies are bulbs that, once planted, need very little attention. They aren't picky about soil preparation, are fairly pest-free (although lubber grasshoppers like to chomp on them) and multiply like crazy.

Because they are such prodigious propagators, they work well naturalized in lawns. They also look lovely when large clumps are clustered together in garden beds or planters.

If you pass by an older house built in pre-subdivision days, you might see some of these perky bloomers dotting the front lawn. They are especially noticeable after a recent downpour. Rain lily's name comes from the fact that the blossoms appear soon after raindrops disappear.

This characteristic makes them natural harbingers of hope and happiness. By appearing when they do, it's as if the flowers express what everyone is thinking, "The drought is over! Our thirst has been quenched. There's reason to rejoice!"

It's an awe-inspiring sight to see a front lawn spotted with cheery blooms in the aftermath of a storm cloud.

The pale pink, white or more rare peach-colored flower heads sit atop slender green stalks. This is a simple flower. No frilly foliage or intricate blossom. Just a solitary stem supporting one single-hued bloom with six petals. The blossom itself is shaped like a funnel that has been slit and flared at the edges. Some say it looks similar to an amaryllis, although smaller and less showy.

What I especially like about rain lily blooms is their lack of pretentiousness. This is a flower for the masses, not some fancy cultivar demanding hours of attention and care.

The formula for success with rain lilies is as simple as the bloom itself: Purchase some bulbs from a catalog, garden center or (better yet) get some divisions from a friend, then place them in the ground.

That's it.

You don't need to fertilize repeatedly or fret about how deep to dig them in or what kind of soil to use. Shade or sun? It doesn't matter. A sunny spot is slightly better, but this flower isn't fussy. It will successfully bear its blossoms year after year in shade as well as sun.

Stick some in a container or window box. Mix them with other plants. Let your imagination run wild. Although rain lilies are domesticated plants, quite a bit of the wildflower remains with them.

Understand beforehand, this is one plant that doesn't need you as much as you need it. Once planted, rain lilies will do quite well on their own, thankyouverymuch. They can be dug in, then forgotten, remembered only after a rainfall when they pop up to say, "Hello again, it's me!"

After an unusually long dry period here in Central Florida, we've finally entered into summer storm season.

For a while there, I was beginning to wonder if climate change had altered our storm patterns forever. The lake levels had gotten so low. The ground has been dusty-dry.

It's a relief to see the sky darken in the afternoon knowing that regular weather cycles have returned and a downpour can be expected sometime each day. I stay inside when it rains, reading a good book or working at my desk, the tattoo of raindrops on the metal roof a steady reminder that the world's back in balance.

Should my mind wander to more gloomy forecasts of climatic doom and disaster, I need only look to the rain lilies for a gentle reminder that everything has its season. Bad times are always followed by good, dry times by wet.

"Everything is going to be all right," my flowers seem to say as they stretch upward on sturdy stems, their cheery faces still moist with raindrops. "Take a deep breath. Relax. If we can smile in the aftermath of storms, so can you."

And you can, too.