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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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I have just come back to Chicago after spending nearly a year working and traveling in New Zealand, and I believe that I might have the answer to America's growing obesity problem. But a wee story before I reveal all. A friend of mine went to a Chicago post office to mail me a package while I was away and when she told the clerk that she wanted to send the package to NZ, the clerk replied, in squiggled brow seriousness: "New Zealand? That's not in the US, is it?" That's deplorable, but most of us here (myself included before I planned my trip) do not know a lot about New Zealand because, well, it's just so small and so very far away. And we don't get any of their quality TV shows like Shortland Street or their version of Idol. But we should know at least something about New Zealand and probably Tonga and New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea and hundreds of other places that don't show up on our news radar very often. Why? Because they know, or think they know, everything about us because our cultural influence is so strong, and we often do not realize that they exist.

Given our awkward spot at the top of the world, that's not particularly neighborly or responsible. And isn't it better to get a mini course in cultural geography from a food column as opposed to a battle map on CNN? So in brief: New Zealand is not in the United States, nor is it any part of Australia. It really does look like The Lord of the Rings. There are tens of millions of sheep there, but hundreds of millions of possums (who are a major environmental threat with no natural predators save for car tires and poison pellets). New Zealand, like Australia, is part of the British Commonwealth, but it has its own Prime Minister, currently Helen Clark, and a democratically elected parliament. It is split up into two main islands -- the North and the South -- a small island called Stewart Island and a few other tiny Pacific islands. Wellington, at the southern tip of the North Island, is the capital, though Auckland, in the northern part of the North Island, is the largest city, with about 1.2 million people, or almost a third of the population.

A lot, though certainly not all, of New Zealanders are very interested in what Americans think of their country, and very few were amused when I replied with the general truth: "We don't." However, all were amused at the above post office anecdote because it completely jived with their perception of Americans as geographically retarded.

So what is the answer to America's obesity problem? First, let me just say the New Zealanders are also mightily struggling with obesity, especially in the native Maori population (who are Polynesian) and in the immigrant Polynesian population from islands like Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. The European, or Pakeha, population also has their share of weight concerns. However, you do not see the staggering amounts of obesity that you see in the US.

So America, in emulating New Zealand in just this one respect, could solve many of its weight problems. Ready? List bread as an appetizer menu item and charge a lot of money for it. Absolutely do not give bread or crackers or chips and salsa away for free. An order of bread in a restaurant, served with dipping sauces like oil and vinegar or pesto or sometimes just butter, generally ran about NZ$7 (approximately US$4.50) for a two-person serving of three slices or so each. And I'm not always talking hearth-baked artisan bread. Some restaurants served sawdust-and-cottonball grocery store baguettes. Generally, dining out in New Zealand is pricier than it is in the US, and I didn't know anyone who did it as often as I do here. I predict this change would not go over very well with customers, but perhaps a splash of ice water in the face is exactly what we need. We certainly do not need any more 8-year-olds with adult onset diabetes. And oh, yeah: their portions are a lot smaller than ours.

But happily and healthfully, even though eating out cost a bit more than I could regularly spend, there was a whole new world of affordable bakery goods waiting to be discovered. (Eating dessert is not unhealthy. Filling up on bottomless wicker baskets of white bread is.) Here are recipes for three of my favorites, adapted from All Things Nice with Jo Seagar. [Ed. note: This book is unavailable in the US, but Jo Seager's New Zealand Country Cookbook is.]

Ginger Crunch
The Ginger Crunch is, I believe, a New Zealand thing, because my British, Irish and Australian friends were not familiar with it from home (though I'll happily stand to be corrected).

Cookie bar:
4.5 oz softened butter
1/2 cup sugar
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger

Ginger Icing:
2.5 oz butter
1 cup confectioner's sugar
2 tablespoons golden syrup (This product is akin to corn syrup and can be purchased at Treasure Island in Chicago in the English imports section under the brand name "Lyle's" -- if you can't find it, you can substitute light corn syrup)
3 teaspoons ground ginger

Cookie: Preheat oven to 375° F. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Sift together the flour, baking powder and ginger. Mix into the creamed mixture. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead well. Press into a greased 8"x10" pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until light brown. While it bakes, make the icing: Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and heat until the butter has melted, stirring constantly. Pour ginger icing over while the crunch is still hot, and cut it into squares before it gets cold. Makes 24.

The Pavlova claims its origins in both New Zealand and Australia, and both countries insist that they invented it (the New Zealanders claim that it was invented in honor of the ballerina Anna Pavlova). It is a bitter feud and Pavlovas, as you will see, would be perfect for throwing.

6 egg whites, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon vinegar
2 teaspoons corn starch
10 oz. cream, whipped
4-6 kiwifruit, peeled & sliced for decoration
Mint sprigs for garnish

Preheat the oven to 225° F. In a large metal, porcelain or glass bowl (not plastic because egg whites won't beat up to their full volume), beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar. The mixture should be getting glossy, thick and shiny with each addition and the process should take about 10 minutes. Beat in the vanilla, vinegar and cornstarch. Spoon the mixture out into a plate-sized mound on a parchment- or wax paper-covered tray. Bake for about 1 hours until it is dry and crisp and lifts easily off the parchment. Cool on a wire rack. To serve, place it flat side up on a serving plate, pile with whipped cream, cover with sliced kiwifruit and garnish with mint sprigs. Serves eight to 10.
Note: the whipping cream is not sweetened, nor does it need to be.

Anzac Biscuits
Finally, in the sprit of cooperation and goodwill towards humankind, here's a recipe for Anzac biscuits. They were originally concocted in Australia and sent to their soldiers in Europe in World War I and were later named Anzac biscuits (biscuits being the British English name for a cookie) to commemorate the Australia New Zealand Army Corps ("ANZACs") who fought in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. Anzac Day, observed in late April in New Zealand and Australia, is akin to our Veterans' Day.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1-1/4 cup shredded coconut, coarsely shredded if available
1-1/2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
4 oz. butter
2 tablespoons golden syrup
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons boiling water

Preheat oven to 325° F. Mix the flour, sugar, rolled oats and walnuts in a bowl. Melt the butter and golden syrup together. Stir the baking soda into the boiling water, then mix the butter and baking soda mixtures together in a large bowl. Add the flour mixture and combine. Roll teaspoonfuls of the mixture into small balls and place on a well greased cookie sheet. Press flat with a spoon, allowing room for them to spread. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack and serve. Makes 40 biscuits.

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About the Author(s)

Guest columnist Christine Ranieri is a writer in Chicago.

If you have a favorite ingredient or type of food you'd love to see written about, send your request to and it may be included in a future column.

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