A foot is not an almond or, If the shoe fits…

My almond-toed boots: always uncomfortable but on trend.

My almond-toed boots: on trend, but always uncomfortable

When I see some of the lengths fashion-conscious women of the past went to to look à la mode—tightly laced corsets, skirts so wide they couldn’t sit on a chair and so on—I wonder how (and even why) they did it. I’m glad we’re now emancipated from such follies.

But there’s a fashion item women still wear every day that’s every bit as ridiculous, restricts movement, results in chronic lifelong pain and causes crippling injuries that sometimes have to be operated on.

It’s the shoe.

Look at your shoes right now. Chances are, if you’re a woman, the shape of your shoe is nothing like that of your natural foot. For example, feet don’t extend to a point with the longest toe being in the middle (a shoe shape marketed as “almond toed”); the inside of your foot is actually straight (or should be, if you haven’t damaged it with faulty footwear), then curves down and round to the small toe; your heels are not 5cm or 10cm higher than the ball of your foot.

While we can make some allowances for fashion – some padding and rouging and other trickery – shoes are taking it beyond the extreme.

Shoemakers are stuck: if they made lasts that truly followed the shape of the human foot, perhaps not many people would buy the resulting product. This is because of the influence of media and popular culture: everywhere, there is reinforcing “evidence” that assures us that all women are obsessed with shoes (Carrie Bradshaw and the Sex And the City crowd have a lot to answer for); that high heels and pointy toes are attractive, feminine and make you look slimmer; that “sensible” shoes are for nanas and they age you before your time.

I’ll tell you what’s ageing: aching feet all day that make you purse your lips and frown.

Yes, I went through my teens, 20s and 30s addicted to fashion, poring over high-fashion magazines, and spending all my spare cash on clothes and shoes. I wore high heels every day, even to the beach.

But I saw the light some time ago. Still, I have some footwear that I shouldn’t have bought.

In this area, men generally make better choices than women. Ironically, pointy-toed high heeled shoes were a male fashion in the 17th century (starting earlier as riding shoes), but somehow changed sexes along the way (cuban heels and cowboy boots excepted). Now men generally make much better choices on footwear than women do.

I was waiting on the train platform the other day with about a hundred other commuters, and I took a look at the shoes people were wearing.

I know men sometimes wear pointy shoes, or shoes that are too small, narrow or ill cut. However, the vast majority of men on that train platform were wearing shoes they could, at least, walk in—run in, if they had to—that wouldn’t put them in danger of falling over, twisting an ankle or developing bunions.

That night, not many of those men would have aching feet because of their shoes, I mused. And they looked good: cool sneakers, chunky workmanlike boots, suede slip-ons, even black patent leather shoes to go with a big-city job.

And what were the women wearing? Some, granted, were in comfortable shoes, even some of the younger women: I’ve read that flatties are in again. But most were in high heels, some so high and thin they could barely walk; and pointed toes; and toes that curved upwards slightly; and enormous stacked heels that made them look like something out of a 1980s glam rock band (though I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing—I loved those bands).

There wouldn’t be a high-heel wearer alive who hadn’t got her heel caught in lawn, or a drain, or other trap multiple times, and tripped, fallen or had to remove the shoe to extract it.

Our own former Prime Minister had two well documented and highly embarrassing shoe moments, both of which would not have happened if she were wearing better equipped footwear. One was on a visit to India, when the PM’s heel became lodged in the lawn and she actually tumbled right over in front of the cameras. I cringe for her every time I see the clip.

As Gillard explained it at the following press conference, “For men who get to wear flat shoes all day every day: if you wear a heel, it can get embedded in soft grass, then when you pull your foot out, the rest of it doesn’t come, and the rest of it is as you saw.”

She also lost a shoe when she was extracted (in a ridiculous manner, I thought) from a situation involving Australia Day protesters in 2012 that her security team had deemed dangerous. In this case, she wasn’t even able to retrieve her shoe and had to leave it behind. It ended up with the Aboriginal tent embassy of long-term protesters in Canberra (they’ve been there 40 years). Check out the sensationalised report from the time:

Such is the power of this fashion “statement”, that even a deeply committed feminist and pioneer such as Gillard (our first female PM) couldn’t bring herself to defy its dictates.

It’s hard to buy women’s shoes that are truly comfortable and never hurt no matter how much you walk in them. My own workaday comfortable shoes have been wonderful, though they were so soft they offered little support. Anyway, they have worn out and I need to buy new ones. We have recently moved and I was delighted to see that there was a specialist shoe shop in our village with row upon row of comfortable but attractive-looking shoes.

They’re expensive, but I don’t mind paying extra for shoes that look good but won’t hurt me.

Well, I tried on every pair of shoes in my size in that shop, much to the exasperation of the assistant. Nothing came close to comfortable. She assured me they would “give” and that I would wear them in. But in my experience, shoes that pinch when you buy them still pinch in the same places when you’ve worn them in.

I noticed that one brand that purports to be a wide and comfortable fitting had those pointy toes that are “on trend” at the moment. The UK online site I used to buy my shoes from calls them “almond toes” and has put them on all its ankle boots.

I questioned the assistant about the “almond toe”, saying, but isn’t this brand supposed to be health-conscious? Do they have any round toes?”

She shook her head, “No, their boots are all pointed this year.”

Well, Mr or Ms Shoemaker, this is what I have to say to you: “A foot is not an almond.”


Cauliflower is the new rice!

My rogan josh, complete with cauliflower rice.

My rogan josh, complete with cauliflower rice

I love pasta, rice and, to a lesser extent, mashed potato, but in our household I am trying to reduce our carbohydrate intake.

We both love to cook and can happily spend hours in the kitchen preparing meals. We’ve been using cauliflower mash to substitute for potato mash for a few years now, and it works beautifully, particularly when done in the snazzy mini-food processor we bought for $30.

Recently, I found that cauliflower could double for another of our staples, and that was white rice. Surprisingly, it was on a Jamie Oliver cooking show that I first heard about cauliflower rice. Here is my version:

Take about a third of a medium cauli for two people. Make sure it is super white and firm. Take off as much of the stalk as you can. Put it in a food processor and whiz until it becomes like grains of rice. Make sure there are no big bits left, and if there are, take them out. But don’t process so much that it congeals. The grains should be separated.

Tip the grains into a microwave-safe dish with a ventilated lid. Very important: do not add water.

Microwave on high for about five minutes. Oliver says seven minutes, and other recipes I’ve seen say four, but it will depend on how much you are cooking, the power of your microwave oven, and what your taste is. For two people, I cook it for four minutes, then test it.

Now use as you would rice: this is a lovely base for a curry, for example, and you can see in the picture above my cauliflower rice with rogan josh, made for dinner last night.

You can also make cauli rice into a sort of pilau. Fry some diced vegetables, such as chopped onion, capsicum, mushroom, garlic, herbs and spices, in a little oil of your choice until golden, then add cooked cauli-rice, stir to heat and serve.

Briefly, here are the other substitutes I use for high-carbohydrate foods:

cauliCauliflower mash

As cauli absorbs a lot of moisture when it cooks, it’s better to microwave or steam it, but you can simply boil it if you want to. Make sure the cooked cauli is very tender, but not waterlogged. The food processor on pulse does the best job, and adding a little cream cheese to the mix does wonders. Half a teaspoon or so of powdered chicken stock can also be good.

If you’ve boiled the cauli, it will make quite a sloppy mash, but this can be delightful served on the dinner plate in a little ramekin with a knob of butter for the naughty.

Zucchini pasta

For a fettuccini substitute, use zucchini (courgette). Take a vegetable peeler and shave long strips from the zucchini, avoiding the inner seeds. You’ll probably need one medium zucchini per person. Then blanche quickly in boiling water—it will take only about one minute, or maybe even less. The trick is that it must be al dente but not raw, so experiment with a few pieces first. If overcooked, the strips will break up.

Drain the strips and treat as you would regular pasta, that is add some seasoning and a few drops of olive oil if you like.

Serve topped with your favourite sauce. A light tomato-based sauce works well, with parmesan and parsley on top. Or, fry in olive oil a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs, a garlic clove, some dried or fresh chilli slices, and an optional anchovy fillet or two. Dribble the sauce liberally over the zucchini pasta and serve with a wedge of lemon on the side.  Season to taste, of course, but remember, anchovy is very salty.

Egg wraps

Bread has such a central place in the western diet, it’s hard to get away from it. This is particularly so at lunchtime, when it seems so easy to grab a couple of pieces of lovely sourdough or a crunchy roll and fill with ham, cheese, tuna, or whatever else is on hand.

For a brilliant alternative, I take one egg per person, break and mix well together in a small bowl. Season and add a little water, no more than a teaspoon for every two eggs, and mix again.

Take a small non-stick fry pan—mine is 14cm across at the base—and spray lightly with oil, turning to medium heat. You should need to use the oil only once during the cooking time.

You fry the egg wraps exactly as if you were cooking crepes: spoon in a small amount of egg and then quickly tilt the pan so the egg covers the entire base. If you’ve overestimated, tip the excess back into the bowl. If you’ve underestimated, add a little more. But this must be done within a few seconds! The wrap will take 30 seconds or less: it’s ready when the edges start to peel away from the pan. You should easily be able to nudge the wrap from the pan and on to a waiting plate.

Continue until all the egg is left. You will probably have three wraps per person, depending on the size of the eggs.

The wraps can be served with hot or cold fillings. Simply treat the way you would a bread wrap, and fill with whatever you want. We like smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers, for example. These can be easily transported to work or school for a portable lunch.

Happy eating, and I’d love to know your suggestions for other substitutes.

The letter you don’t want…but know you need

I got a letter today. My name and address were hand written (slightly erroneously, but no matter) and it felt like there was a card inside: perhaps an invitation to something interesting?

Eagerly, I tore open the envelope and found… a reminder from my dentist to say it’s six months since my last appointment. Boo!

dentistOn the bright side though, it’s not really six months. It’s a trick I played on myself. I asked my dentist’s receptionist to send me the reminder two months early because a) It takes me that long to force myself to make an appointment and b) I really should go three times a year, for the health of my gums. If I go before the end of the year, I will have been three times this year.


Bambi, the dentist and the Mona Lisa

How lovely it was for me when last Sunday, while I was on vacation in Fremantle, Western Australia, a crown on one of my teeth fell out during breakfast.  For the rest of our time there, mostly spent seeing family on both sides, I had to be careful not to smile too widely, lest I look like a pirate.
We returned to Melbourne in the early hours of Thursday morning, and this morning (Friday) saw me at my excellent dentist, Dr L., his able assistant, Ms K., and friendly administrator Ms V. “You’ve presented me with a challenge,” Dr L. said cheerfully. I won’t go too deeply into what had to be done, save that  it involved a “slow drill” and something called a “para-post”.
It’s all completely painless, of course, thanks to local anaesthetic. I read a lot of historical novels and it’s the one thing that makes me glad I wasn’t born before the 20th century. Anyhow, although dentistry doesn’t hurt now, it’s not particularly pleasant. So, I close my eyes and try to divert my mind. I used to think about a beautiful beach—white sand, turquoise water, a yellow umbrella. Then I played too much of an iPhone app called Distant Shore, and got sick of the perfect beach.
So, what do I think of now? Bambi. That is because Bambi is the sweetest little thing in the history of fictional characters, and Disney captured perfectly this essence of sweet innocence in its portrayal of the fawn in the 1942 movie.

I’ve been wanting to write a piece about Bambi for a while, because suddenly, everywhere I look, are images of him. The protagonist of one of the earliest anti-hunting pro-environmental novels seems to be making a comeback—if he ever went away, that is. My earliest memory of Bambi is probably the Little Golden book with the Disney animation characters, but the story was first published in German in 1923 as a novel,  Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by the Ausrian-Hungarian writer Felix Salten,  who sold the film rights for $1000 in 1933.

Just before Christmas, I saw a 1950s ceramic Bambi ornament for sale at a shop near me called Retro Active, which sells 20th-century memorabilia, jewellery and furniture. It was $30 but, it being Christmas and not my birthday, I thought it wasn’t good form to buy a present for myself. However, shortly after Christmas, it is my birthday, so when the shop opened after the break, I went back to buy Bambi. Guess what? Bambi was gone. I imagine that dear little deer sitting now on someone else’s mantelpiece. Since then, I have seen a Bambi lamp for a baby’s room, and a fantastic Bambi book sculpture, which you can see here.
So synonymous has the term “Bambi” become with innocence and goodness, that to say something is “like killing Bambi” is to brand it just about the worst thing possible. So I was horrified, while researching this piece, to come across a discussion thread on the internet which started with the question, “Is it illegal to shoot a baby deer?”

Perhaps Bambi is making a comeback because, in this commodified, mediatised world in which we westerners can have just about anything we want, limited only by the size of our wallets, Bambi represents what is seen as a simpler, more honest time in which the goodies and the baddies were clearly delineated.We tend to apply this sentimentality or faulty nostalgia for “a simpler time” to many long-gone eras:   I mean, it’s all very well, for example, to look back to the early 19th century through sumptuous TV mini-series of Jane Austen novels and envy the seemingly peaceful and uncomplicated rural lifestyles back then. What we don’t see are the realities of life without all we take for granted today: electricity, refrigeration, and modern medicine, for example; and anaesthetic for visits to the dentist. Before 1844, dental anaesthetic was unknown: routine, reliable local anaesthetic without too many nasty side effects was not introduced until as late as the 1940s. More about that here.

Lack of proper anaesthetic meant restorative dental work was extremely limited before the 20th century. So, if the heroine of  the 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, had toothache, she would simply have had the tooth pulled out. As my late father, a dentist, told me: a real Elizabeth Bennet would have lost many of her teeth by her 20s, and those she still had would probably have been brown with rot. She would definitely not have had a mouth full of white, even teeth. I never could persuade him from his view that period dramas should present characters with teeth like they would really have had.
He was always convinced he knew the secret to the Mona Lisa’s smile. “It’s obvious,” he said of the early 16th-century painting. “It’s because all her teeth would have been rotten or missing, and she smiles that strange way because she has chronic toothache.”

Mona Lisa

In Bambi’s idealised world, all the goodies, of course, would have perfect teeth and would never need to go to the dentist. I hope this is my last dental visit until my usual six-monthly check-up is due. Fingers crossed.