Tag Archives: vegan

No Candy Thermometer? No Problem!

I went to high school with a girl named Yoshi Nishibara and today is her birthday. I don’t know why mumble-mumble-mumble years after we graduated, I can still remember this. But I can. (The first boy I ever kissed celebrated *his* 32nd birthday eight days ago. I don’t know why I remember that either.)

Yesterday, however, was my friend’s husband’s birthday. And…since last year at this time, I was all about vegan baking, I’m afraid my friend’s husband (and my friend…whose birthday happens to be at the end of November) got stuck with more than their fair share of my vegan experiments. And…since I’ve had tres leches on the brain, I decided there was really no better way to celebrate my friend’s husband’s birthday than with a cake that is decidedly non-vegan — three milks *and* a whole mess o’ egg whites.

The recipe I found on Epicurious said that tres leches is a Nicaraguan cake often served during the holidays…which I suppose makes it even *more* poetic as I sorta, kinda spent upwards of five minutes *in* Nicaragua while I was in Central America a few weeks back.

I don’t think my cake pan was *quite* big enough…as the sponge cake sort of exploded over the edge, giving itself a muffin top. But…no worries, I guess…you’re supposed to cut off the hardened top layer anyway. (And, for the record, it smelled really, really good…like, almost worth eating on its own?)

I think my favorite part of making this cake was the meringue. I’ve blogged before about how meringues are my nemesis…(damn you, you ridiculously clean bowl!) but this recipe called for making it in a totally new way…and I confess I was transfixed! You get four egg whites ready in a mixer…and they sit around and wait while you bring sugar and water to a boil on the stove. As soon as the sugar/water mixture is boiling, you start up your mixer.

Now, the directions say to keep the sugar/water on the burner until it reaches “soft ball stage” on a candy thermometer…and then add it to the egg whites and turn the mixer on really high until it is shiny and cool. But, alas, I do not *have* a candy thermometer…just a meat thermometer. And, you know, sometimes my ingenious solutions work out really well…and sometimes they are absolute disasters. Luckily, this time it was the former. (I told an old coworker about this and he said, “Sure…I mean, candy? Meat? What’s the difference?”) I Googled “soft ball stage” and learned that it’s 235°F to 240°F. And my meat thermometer goes up to 220 (although the highest cooking temperature it has listed is 180 for poultry…). So…I decided that I would wait until it hit 220 and then leave it on the burner for another minute or two…and then surely it would be at 235ish. And…I gotta say I was a little skeptical about the adding-it-to-mixing-egg-whites part…but, it totally worked. Like a charm. A beautiful meringue. (I don’t think it looked *quite* as pretty ON the cake…and I briefly flirted with the idea of tossing it back in the oven to brown those peaks…but…then I decided I should maybe leave well enough alone…)

(Sidenote: Candy thermometers really make me feel like it’s the holidays. That’s because [I am told] my great-grandmother was a whiz at pie-baking and candy-making…and it was from her that my aunt learned everything she knows about pies [I think — I *may* be taking a little creative license here…] and my mom learned everything she knows about candy. And so, in the Decembers of my youth, my mother would make fudge and penuche to hand out to friends and coworkers…making this the one time of year she used her candy thermometer…)

So…fun fact: The milks in question are sweetened condensed, evaporated and heavy cream. You mix all of that up with two tablespoons of optional rum (and, who are we kidding? I *obviously* included the rum…but had to buy a GIANT bottle of it…and so will theoretically have a little Captain in me for years to come…). Then you just sort of slowly pour it all over the sponge cake with the sawed-off top and it soaks it up. I was a little concerned that I was over-liquefying it because my cake wasn’t big enough…but I didn’t actually end up sampling it in the end…so…dunno.

I made the cranberry compote, too…which I thought was supposed to be more like a sauce…but, according to another quick Google, is whole fruit in syrup. (Although I think it is crazy-ridiculous that the recipe says to add four cloves…and then to remove said cloves before serving. It’s a big fruity glob — one could spend hours searching for individual cloves. And, for whatever reason, I totally just flashed on a movie with Pee Wee Herman and the circus — Big Top Pee Wee? — in which there’s a really tall guy with a super-tiny wife…and she sings a song about being a needle in a haystack…which I can only imagine is sort of like finding cloves in cranberry compote…[why do I remember that all this time later, too?])

I *also* thought it was kind of funny that the recipe said to add just enough water to make the cornstarch “slurry.” I think I added a *little* too much and in fact made it “wet.” (Cornstarch is some crazy stuff…going from liquid to solid to liquid…it’s almost a little trippy.)

Then…my friend gave me a copy of the latest issue of Yoga Journal that has a story entitled, “The Joy of Baking,” and includes — get this — a recipe for a vegan chocolate cake. (Aww…while I was assembling the tres leches cake, I also found my disembodied Santa and snowman heads that are supposed to go on holiday cupcakes…and I briefly thought about repurposing one for a happy December birthday…but, in the end, I decided that the disembodied heads will be fine in their baggie for another year…)

So…the writer talks about growing up in a remote town and receiving cakes from church ladies who would go out of their way to deliver them to cheer someone up or to celebrate something. THEN she goes on to say that through this practice she “learned early on the joys of nourishing the heart through food.” And she quotes a yoga guy from Berkeley who says, “It’s not unlike the kind of nourishment that comes from romantic love. Food prepared with loving intention is spiritual.”

And I’d never thought of that before! (Insert the obvious joke about how I’ve been able to stay single for so long…) But, I mean…I think she’s right. There *is* something sort of deep and meaningful and connecting-you-to-the-Everyman and whatnot that happens when you bake stuff for people. It makes them happy. And making them happy makes you happy. And that makes you feel good…regardless of how often you actually flex your overtly spiritual muscles. (And surely being a spreader of joy buys you some leeway in the eyes of organized religion?)

And, I mean, I’ve long known the therapeutic effects of baking — still one of the only things that always calms me down when I’m upset — and…as I put the finishing touches on my book proposal, I am realizing that baking-as-coping-mechanism is a really big theme. No matter what’s going on, I’ve always been able to turn to it…and it *always* makes me feel better. (I am actually trying to think of a good title with a new spin on a common baking phrase. Suggestions welcome.)

And I *totally* know what she means about interacting with strangers on the street when she’s hauling around giant baked good carriers…and then the warm, fuzzy part: After baking cakes as offerings for a year, she says she learned “…when we offer up our labor, time, energy, love and craft — humble and imperfect as they might be — with no expectation of return, people respond in kind, and tenderness opens up in the space between.” (Which almost makes me think I should tackle a similar experiment in 2010…)

And, while I don’t really get the yoga connection that she goes on to talk about (I am seriously uncoordinated and exercising in public is one of the things I fear more than anything)…I really like what she says right there. It actually reminds me a lot about Julia Child in My Life in France…who says you should never apologize for any mistakes…because 1) you were nice enough to make something for everyone and they should be gracious, dammit (my paraphrase); and 2) if you’re making them eat something gross, they shouldn’t have to boost your ego, too.

And that’s something that I’m still learning how to do…whenever I offer up something, I immediately want to apologize for all the imperfections — watch out for wax paper on the bottom…and be careful of those cloves I didn’t remove…and it may be too watery…and the meringue looks a little funny… — it’s not easy to just say, “Bon appetit,” and leave it at that.

(And, speaking of Julia, my own sister just MET Julia Powell at a book signing…and she was sweet and asked ahead of time if I had any questions…and I, of course, sent over about 1,000…and, wouldn’t you know? My sister got them all answered for me. [And — hey — I suppose I could even go to the Meat Hook tonight myself…if I am feeling particularly brave.])

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Filed under birthdays, books, brown sugar, cake, cupcake, eggs, gadgets, holidays, parties, vegan

Julie and Meat/Infidelity

I had hoped to actually post this before Cleaving’s December 1 publication date as I have friends in high places (…sorta…) and got an early copy of Julie Powell’s second book…and wanted to rub it in your collective faces a little bit. (But in the nicest way possible.)

But, alas, it is now December 5, and for all you know, I could have spent the last four days feverishly reading it and composing dark lies.

But *that*, I suppose, is sort of beside the point.

I had *heard* Cleaving got bad reviews…and I understand why. I hadn’t actually read any of the critics until I sat down to write *this.* But as I was reading the book, I definitely thought, “People are not going to like this…”

And because of the kinship I felt with Julie in Julie and Julia (and that I still felt — albeit to a lesser degree — in Cleaving), I’m going to go out on a limb and play a little devil’s advocate here. Which is not to say I liked the entire book. I initially thought it was hard to get into — the text really just goes back and forth between Knives/Meat and Marriage Falling Apart/Affair over and over again. Neither topic is really pleasant to encounter…(especially for those of us who saw Chris Messina valiantly play the role of Eric in this summer’s movie…)

But first I’ll tackle the meat: I’m hardly a vegetarian (those vegan blog posts last year were really just a buddy at HuffPo hooking an unemployed girl up…), but, put lightly, some of those butchering passages were really hard to read. (It was sort of like when I was watching something on TV with my parents about bison that mysteriously died in a national park..and it turned out that they were already sick…and because of the cold weather, they got trapped in some sort of gassy something-or-rather out on the plains…so, it was unfortunate, but they would have died anyway. And the national parks guys proved this by cracking open one of the bones and showing this really gooey bone marrow…and my mother and I saw it and immediately exclaimed, “EWW!” and my dad just said, “What? It’s bone marrow.”) So…Point #1: I may eat steak, but that doesn’t make it easy to read about how a cow *becomes* steak. Which maybe means I *should* be a vegetarian…but that’s a topic for another post.

Point #2: After such phenomenal success with her first book, I sort of have to give Powell props for not following a similar pattern and writing the same thing again, but with Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two. I would imagine the temptation would totally be there with something that has already been established as a successful model…*especially* when that model has been turned into a Nora Ephron movie and you KNOW that plenty of people will buy the second book on name recognition alone.

I think London’s Sunday Times put it best, actually, in this review that asked how Powell could possibly top herself after Julie and Julia…and then answers itself: “The answer is, of course, that she couldn’t. But she has had a jolly good stab at it — literally.”

I like that — “a jolly good stab.” We should all be so lucky…

But…it *is* gross. And disconcerting. And, as noted, I basically agreed with everyone who didn’t like it…until D — the man with whom she is having the torrid affair that threatens her marriage — disappears. That was the moment Julie became a sympathetic character to me…and I started to identify with her more and more…and even recognized some of my own behavioral patterns in the things she does for him…even though she knows she’ll never hear from him. This may officially make me a crazy person, but…1. Who among you didn’t think that anyway? And…2. I totally understand that compulsion…and that desire to maintain a connection with someone no longer in your life. Small case in point: There is perhaps no one (aside from myself) who loved my cat more than the Bartender. And so, for example, when I finally got the cat fixed and the vet told me that he was the most well-endowed feline she had ever neutered, I *knew* the Bartender would appreciate the story…perhaps more than anyone else. And so I emailed him about it…even though I knew he wouldn’t respond. I guess part of me is stubborn enough and/or hopeful enough that somewhere out there, he read my message and it made him happy and he remembered that we had good times together. (But when I read Christine Muhlke’s review in the NYT, I felt really bad about myself. I can’t help but feel she’s calling me pathetic, too: “Powell’s not kidding about the ‘obsession’ part: she pathetically texts and e-mails into the ether for almost a year, then fleshes her longing into a book that doesn’t spare the reader a single full-frontal flashback.” [For the record though, I spared y’all plenty of full-frontal flashbacks. So count your blessings.])

However, when I told my friend J that I sort of got Julie’s sadness about D, she said, “But you don’t have a husband!!” which is a fair point. And, Julie, as much as I’d like to defend you (you’re the one, after all, who gave me hope that it *is* possible to be at a point in life in which you feel absolutely nothing is going right, but you can still suck it up and make positive changes and turn everything around…), I gotta say that it *is* hard to have real, total, complete sympathy for you knowing that you have Eric at home. And, sure, he goes out and has his own affair, too…but…I found myself asking, “Why not just get a divorce?” repeatedly. And, sure, he’s been a part of your life for a super-long time and you know each other so well that you’re basically the same person and you always know what the other one is thinking…which is why you can’t hide the affair from him in the first place, but also why you can’t bear to part with him, and…well…I don’t know. It just sort of gets to a point where it seems like a tough decision needs to be made…but nobody is willing to make it and it kinda feels like you guys are making your own beds. Either get divorced or don’t, but, for the love of god, stop complaining about the uncertainty. (Which, ultimately, she does.) (And all of this, “But I love/know him more than I love/know myself…”-business sort of makes me think of the fourth book in the Twilight series and that half-vampire baby that resulted from Bella and Edward’s union. UGH. But, again, another post for another day.)

Point #3 is that when you write something like this, you have to be honest. (Or at least that’s what Dale Maharidge taught me…) And, sure, some of Cleaving is a little saucy and/or, you know, what kids these days (or kids from days of yore) might call TMI…but, at the same time, I also think it’s kind of brave. She wrote about a topic that clearly does not paint her in a positive light…but she doesn’t gloss over any of it. She sort of offers herself up — flaws and all. And that takes guts. And to touch on Point #2 again briefly, all the saucy stuff takes her further out of her Julie and Julia Comfort Zone…and I gotta give her props for being brave enough to do that, too. (But, then again, I don’t know how much of it was actually flexing writing muscles and how much of it was, “See?? I can write naughty words! And lots of ’em!”)

I also think confidence plays a big role in all of this…and it is where, again, I feel a certain kinship with Ms. Powell. I was just at a little J-school classmate reunion-y thing, in fact, when I was talking about making slow progress on my book and one of my classmates grabbed me by the arms and shook me a little and said, “You’re so talented! Do you know that? You have to know that and acknowledge it and understand that someday you’re going to do great things!” and it was sort of like, “Yes! Sure. Okay!”

I like the way the NYT put the confidence issue best: Muhlke writes that D’s enduring power over Julie exists, in part, because his presence in her life “instills the confidence that being played by Amy Adams in the movie apparently did not.” And…I don’t know. But I get that, too. And, heck, I can only assume money is no object for her now and I don’t really see anything wrong with looking around and saying, “Hey! I have a lot of freedom!” and then trying butchering on for size and going to Argentina, Ukraine and Tanzania…in order to clear her head or spark something within her or simply to delay the inevitable. Obviously she’s still a person trying to figure out who she is and what makes her tick…and I’m not sure we should all be so quick to judge. She has an amazing opportunity sans financial pressures to actually figure out all that stuff on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs…that a lot of people never get to do. I have no idea what I’d do with myself if I didn’t have to worry about paying rent or bills or anything (aside from blogging for all of you, natch). While visiting my parents for Thanksgiving, I went to a thrift shop with my mother and found a giant silver clock that was lined with velvet and contained a hologram of the Last Supper and some fake flowers. And it was just the most amazing clock ever…but there was a slight imperfection in the velvet lining…so I bought some additional fake flowers and glued them on the inside and then I decided I might as well touch up the silver paint while I was at it, too…and I pretty much had the time of my life. So…perhaps I would fix up old clocks. But would I really be fulfilled by that forever and ever? I have no idea. (See? Creating a fulfilling life for oneself is a toughie.)

Bottom line: I think there’s a lot of be said about pursuing your passion no matter what. And I hate to get up on a feminist soapbox, but…I don’t think it’s totally unreasonable to point out that women face this tinge of selfishness when they want to do something purely for themselves that men never do. A man can pursue whatever career/passions he wants and he can still be a model family man. But a woman who puts her career and/or other passions at the forefront at the expense of family and/or children isn’t such a sympathetic figure. And that’s not really fair. (I am tempted to ask the “What if Julie was a man?”-question and bring up powerful men and *their* affairs and follow *that* thread for awhile…but I think Access Hollywood quite thoroughly beat me to that punch last week.)

And, I mean, I totally understand Julie’s excitement in having her own apartment. (Did Virginia Woolf not write that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”?) I’m really not good at sharing spaces. In fact, I think my own apartment may be the ONE thing I’ve done right in my life to date. So…yet another thing that makes me get Julie. If only Eric didn’t exist at all, she might be one of my favorite people ever…(or perhaps I should say, “The idea of her…” I just Googled and found an interivew on YumSugar and realized that she *is*, in fact, a real person and thought, “Yikes! What if she reads this?” Which she won’t…but, still…)

My final plus: It’s hard to travel on your own. Heck, I have trouble eating or going to movies by myself. (That’s one of the good things about working from home — I can go see movies in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and absolutely no one is in the theater…) So — even though I agree with the reviewers that her post-apprenticeship jaunts around the world *do* seem to have been tacked on without a firm idea about how they contribute to the book as a whole — I also think it’s really great she was brave enough to fly all over the world on her own.

The NYT felt otherwise — “She travels to Argentina, Ukraine and Tanzania, a 100-page exercise in self-indulgent writing, in which she dwells on how attractive the locals find her and how much Malbec, Cognac or goat’s blood she can drink…” — but, I mean, c’mon. What is memoir (or foodoir) if not an exercise in self-indulgence?

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Mrs. Fields’ Big Secret?

So…I really, really wanted to make cookies the other night…and the last time I felt this compulsion, I had no eggs, so there was absolutely no way I could go through with it and it was a sad day. This time, however, I discovered I had no butter…but I *did* have one stick of margarine left over from my vegan baking escapades. But…I’m awfully partial to butter, so I wasn’t sure if I could actually go through with it. In the end, I cracked (obv). And…here’s the thing: they turned out to be really stout cookies that didn’t spread out much…and when they were right out of the oven, they were pretty fantastic. (I also went overboard with the chocolate chips as I was afraid they would taste weird…so that may also have something to do with it.) But the texture is what really got me — it was almost a Debbie Fields-type thickness. So…I wonder: is that one of her secrets? The margarine?

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Meat Blogging, Mickey Rourke & a Journalism-Teaching Doppelganger

So…as I’m sure my faithful readers are aware, I’m still a freelancer…which is really just a fancy way of saying I’m a deadbeat who is not sure how I’ll pay my rent each month. So far, I’ve gotten lucky…but I am particularly nervous about April. I have a check coming in at the end of February…and then? It’s the same “Will I be able to pay my bills?”-game I’ve been playing since August. It’s enough to give a girl gray hair and an ulcer.

But I digress. An opportunity has come up for me to write for a meat blog — unpaid, as these things tend to be — and yet I still hold out hope that perhaps *this* will be the project that gets me the attention of someone with hiring powers, etc., etc. and then I will forever thank this person for inadvertently becoming the missing link (!) in my tediously long job quest.

A bit about the blog: it’s a parody of PETA called MEATA (“Men Eat All Things Animal”) and I can blog about “all things meat.” My MEATA connection said he is positioning himself as a “bacon specialist.” So…it could be an opportunity for me to flex my writing muscles in new and exciting ways. I’m not sure what meat I’d pick (if I had to) and I was worried a little that the vegans would be upset and I would never blog for HuffPo again…but then the editor — in a Glinda-the- Good-Witch moment (“you’ve had the power all along”) — said that I have log-in deets and can use them anytime. So. Huffington Post readers, your wait is almost over.

MEATA, however, I’m still pondering. My mom just made her own pastrami, so that’s obviously a possibility. And the winning recipe at the Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off had turkey in it, so it’s also an option.

My favorite kind of blogging is me cooking/baking and writing about the experience. As I said to my MEATA connection, the punchlines generally write themselves that way. So this whole post is really to tell you not to worry about me — I have options. I’m going to be fine.

In the meantime, I finally saw one of the Oscar-nominated movies — The Wrestler. In real life, I think Mickey Rourke looks kind of like Dale Maharidge, one of my favorite professors at Columbia’s J-School. Thankfully, though, The Ram did not look like Dale in the film…

And for those of you confused as to why I would bring up Mr. Rourke and his journalism-teaching doppelganger in a post about blogging and meat, I will enlighten you. There was a line in the film from the pervy store manager when The Ram was considering a job at the deli counter: “There will be lots of hot, horny housewives begging you for your meat.”

(And now I think of all the people who will Google terms in that quote, looking for Web sites of an entirely different kind and will perhaps see the name “Tasty Lacy” for a moment and think they’re on to something good.)

PS: I finally learned how to say “charcuterie.”

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I Lost a Super Bowl Bake-Off on a Technicality.

The technicality being, apparently, that I am a weirdo.

I’ll explain…

I know I’m not vanilla. I could, in fact, be the most neurotic person ever. People call me crazy from time to time (and sometimes there’s just enough venom behind it that it actually hurts my feelings a little). Bottom line — I’m eccentric. I get it. Countless people wrote me after Pie Day to tell me just that.

And I’m fine with it…for the most part. I don’t want to *be* vanilla. I don’t want to blend in with the crowd and be just like everybody else. I’m glad there are things that make me unique. But…at the same time, I don’t want to be a circus sideshow act. I don’t want people to think that I’m actually, legitimately should-be-institutionalized CRAZY (even though on my last birthday I declared that this was going to be the year that I try not to care so much about what other people think).

Also? I worry a lot. This was especially true on Pie Day. I wanted things to go well. I wanted everyone to have a good time. But sometimes I can be…a little manic. And even my closest friends only have so much patience. Sooo…somewhere along the line on Pie Day, I drifted from (endearingly?) neurotic to downright annoying and friends suggested I get a drink. When I was still high-strung after one, they told me to get another. And so on.

And…there were some people I simply wasn’t expecting to see at Pie Day. So when two of them showed up — we’ll call them Man A and Man B — I was thrilled to see them. I was *also* feeling no pain at that point…and perhaps greeted them more enthusiastically than was necessary. But…no harm, no foul? Better too enthusiastic than not enough?

It also happens that Man A used to bake pies. And so this was a point of conversation…and two Super Bowls ago, I had a get-together at my apartment and a friend was from Chicago and a big Bears fan and liked to bake, so she and I had a bake-off for the game that year — she baked a pie for the Bears and I did one for the Colts. Hers was blue and orange and vegan (Very festive! And healthy!), but creamy blue *and* appetizing is hard to pull off…

So…surely I referenced this victory in the course of conversation when I got to talking to Man A about *another* Super Bowl Bake-Off *this* year. And, you know, most of the time I exhibit a heck of a lot of restraint…but, like I said, no pain was felt by the end of Pie Day…and so some trash talk flowed freely…and at one point, I allegedly told Man A that I was going to “bake a pie that would make (him) rue the day (he) was born.”

Unbeknownst to me, however, Man B was listening and texting a mutual friend — Man C? — about the stupid things I was saying.  And, you know, there was no malice behind it or anything like that…but when Man C told me about it — laughing heartily, mind you — I couldn’t help but feel a little stupid and embarrassed. I wanted things to go so well on Pie Day and for people to leave thinking good things about pies and baking and — yes, I admit it — ME. Instead — admittedly, my own fault — three gentleman ended up laughing after the fact because I had too much to drink and wasn’t able to restrain the crazy. So when Man C later refused to apologize to Man A for me, I wrote A myself and said I was sorry and conceded the contest.

However, if I *was* going to bake a pie for the Cardinals…here’s my thought process:

Obviously you have to go with either the color or the bird. (The direction — as in, cardinal sign — could be clever…but would require more thought than I actually put in as I was already the loser and the bake-off was never really going to happen anyway.)

If it’s the color, I suppose you could always do red velvet cake…but that’s technically a cop-out. Or perhaps you could invent red velvet pie?

Or…you could go with a red fruit — Strawberries? Rhubarb? Both? — and give it an additional AZ spin by cutting out cacti from the extra dough to decorate the top. (Which sort of reminds me of the time I went out of my way to find a figure of a runner to decorate a cake for a stupid, stupid man who was getting ready for a marathon and I had to buy a whole set of soccer players just to get one that looked like he was running.)

Or…with the bird theme, my first thought was that nursery rhyme — 4 and 20 blackbirds, baked in a pie…When the pie was opened /the birds began to sing. /Wasn’t that a dainty dish /to set before the king? — and it turns out there is *actually* a Cajun recipe for blackbird pie…with blackbirds. Luckily, however, there’s also a birdless blackbird pie recipe. So…I’m thinking that’s the one I probably would have made.

Happy Super Bowl Sunday! Here’s hoping the Cardinals pull off an upset…although the Giants came through last year…and back-to-back underdog victories may be too much to ask for…?

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Shameless plug?

I have also been writing a lot about vegan baking lately:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-lacy/

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