When my father was alive he had a special category of people he referred to as “the salt of the Earth.” These are rare folks, but you know them when you meet them – immediately trustworthy, and comfortable. These are the people who bring you home in yourself and your world. Last March I had the good fortune to meet one of those people in my life, Venice Williams. I was following her as a presenter at the Midwest Vegan Festival, and she immediately enchanted me with her knowledge of herbs, but also her ability to be present with people – all sorts of people.
Later that summer I joined the Herbal Apprenticeship program she leads at Alice’s Garden, and began a journey with her in that space that has strongly impacted me in many ways. Alice’s Garden is a community garden next to Brown Street School off Fond du Lac Avenue on Milwaukee’s North Side. It’s a richly diverse space in many ways: the people who grow and gather there are all colors of the rainbow, which is a pleasant change in a highly segregated city like Milwaukee. But the garden is more than that, it is a spiritual place. The garden sits on what was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, and long before that was home to the Sauk tribe of Native Americans. The garden is a reclamation of space for the people, and spirits that have lived on that land, and you feel that when you are there. Recently I was walking the herbal labyrinth that is in the garden. Time slowed down, and the sounds of the neighborhood disappeared. The only real sense I had was of gentle solitude and communal place. It wasn’t a dramatic or shattering epiphany, more of a subtle quiet. Venice, as well as a host of others, shepherd that community, and hold that space for everyone who enters there.
When I began to formulate the idea of Mouth & Muscle, one of the things I really wanted to do was focus on bringing products that are indigenous to Milwaukee to everyone in the area. The idea that we can foster strength in ourselves by supporting and strengthening our community with our financial sustenance is central to what I want to do with this business. I have curated producers from Milwaukee who are part of the weave of fabric that makes our city as unique and flavorful as it is. And I can think of no better representation of that than Alice’s Garden, and Venice Williams.
She will be sharing a variety of herbal teas and body salves with us here. She creates all of these things, and a vast majority of the herbs in those products were grown in Alice’s Garden. They are magical creations… and I’ll support why I say that with a final story…
Over the summer I was preparing to compete in my first powerlifting competition. I was overly ambitious and lacking every ounce of patience. Two weeks before the competition I dislocated my rib twice practicing deadlifts. My coach (Dan), and my chiropractor where both done with me, they taped me up and admonished my obstinense. To make matters worse, I fell asleep on an ice pack that exploded and burned my back. It was excruciating.
I was in the garden one evening and showed my back to Venice. She immediately put a calendula rue salve on it and sent me home with some. I diligently put that on day and night. Four days later the burn was healed enough for me to be back lifting. I’m a professional chef… I burn myself a lot, and I’m pretty familiar with how to heal those burns. What I know is that the size and degree of the burn I had was pretty bad. To have it 80% healed in four days was not something I expected, and it’s not something I fully understand, but it happened.
We spend a lot of energy and money slathering our bodies with chemical laden rubs and tinctures. I want to offer you all some alternatives to that… and so we are very, very proud to have Alice’s Garden teas and salves for sale here. I hope you enjoy them and feel their power as much as I do!
It’s that time of year, the garden is just about to move past its peak and we’re all searching Pinterest for ways to preserve the harvest. In recent years I’ve decided to leave the vegetable gardening to others infinitely more qualified at growing those things and focus on herbs. Herbs have incredible healing powers in addition to their culinary uses… and they grow like weeds, so I’m qualified there as well.
Herbs need consistent cutting back, but now is the time for all Midwesterners to begin the process of putting our gardens to sleep, and herbs are a good place to start. One of my favorite ways to preserve the flavor and essence of things like mint, basil, lavender, and even rosemary is to make something called a simple syrup.
For those of you who enjoy the occasional (or frequent) cocktail, you probably know simple syrup as the sweetening agent in many of our favorite alcoholic beverages. But simple syrups are great in nonalcoholic applications as well. Perhaps the most notable being lemonade. Recently I’ve had a profusion of lavender, and it’s been a warm fall in Wisconsin so lavender lemonade has been a frequent visitor on my table. It’s ridiculously easy to make, and if you have a variety of simple syrups on hand you can get pretty creative with these… basil, strawberry lemonade, mint limeade (mojito anyone?)… there really is no limit. Simple syrups can also be frozen in ice cube trays and popped into seltzer water for a refreshing revisit to summer in the dark winter months.
So… how do we make this thing? It’s almost not worth a formal recipe, but I’ll give that to you now. Be aware, you can substitute other sweeteners for the cane sugar. When I lived in Vermont I used maple syrup. Some folks like agave. And if you aren’t vegan honey is a nice option. Use what you got, and what you like! Another hint… if you want a more intense flavor, simmer the herbs longer, or include more herbs. And the reverse is also true… you can back off the amount of herbs, and the time you allow them to steep.
Herbal Simple Syrup
1 cup Cane Sugar
1 cup Water
1 bunch Fresh Herb
Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan on the stove. Brin gup to a simmer and hold for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and allow the mixture to steep until it cools down. Strain through a mesh sieve. Store in the refrigerator or freeze for longer holding.
1 cup Lavender Simple Syrup
1 cup Lemon Juice
2-3 cups Water
Mix all the ingredients together and serve over ice.
I guess this is the origin story for Mouth & Muscle... at least the Mouth portion; and maybe a clarification of who I am. Let's start with that one... I'm Dr. Claire Menck, one of the co-founders of Mouth & Muscle. Specifically, I'm the Mouth part of the operation. I'm a professional chef whose been in the food service industry for over 35 years. Among other things, I'm also a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in change processes, specifically, my work has looked food and meaning making in the face of crisis. [If that fascinates you, I will direct you to my dissertation right over HERE.]
About a year and a half ago I was a Corporate Chef for a cheese company. That meant I spent a lot of time flying around the country cooking and selling cheese. It was a great job with a great company... and I was miserable. The travel was intense (three or more days a week in the air), long hours on my feet, lots of food and alcohol, and very little physical activity. The job took its toll - I gained a lot of weight, had incredibly painful sciatica, and developed an intense gastro-intestinal sickness that would not go away. Finally, it got to the point that when I boarded a plane out of Milwaukee the flight crew (all of whom knew me by name) would just hand me a Bloody Mary because I was always in so much pain. I knew something had to change. I went to the doctor, and after a battery of tests, he diagnosed me with a severe intolerance to casein... the protein in dairy.
You know, that's a problem for the chef of a cheese company. By fall it was clear that I was not getting better, and I realized it was time to make some serious changes in my life. I was 47 at the time, and it was now or never.
So, in December I left the land of dairy for good... including my job, and I began a pretty intense shift in my lifestyle. Part of that change included going to the gym every day. Around the same time I kept seeing posts on Instagram from one of my former students, Narin, who was involved with a pretty serious weight lifting program. My fascination with weights had begun! I began following accounts like PowerLiftingWomen, GRRRL, and GirlsWhoPowerlift. I was completely obsessed with the power and strength I saw in the women in those posts, but more than that, I fell in love with their attitude. This was a group of tough, determined chics doing things and looking ways society doesn't always embrace. These ladies supported each other and celebrated differences in body shape, form, and ability. This was my tribe.
In January of 2018 my health club offered an Olympic Powerlifting class, which I immediately signed up for. It was apparent from the very first time I tried a clean and jerk that I lacked a few things: power, strength, and coordination. If I was serious about this weightlifting thing, I needed someone to help me figure out how to do it. And that's where Dan (the Muscle part of this equation) comes in the picture. He led that class, and the next week he became my trainer.
Dan's a big football player type dude... looks like your average Bro, and that's what I needed - a Bro Translator. I needed someone to teach me how to set the bar, how to load the bar. I didn't know anything. I didn't know what anything was called, much less how to sequence a workout. Obi-Dan-kenobi, as I lovingly nicknamed him, was my entry into this world, and I was dogged in my determination to figure it out.
It quickly became apparent to me that Dan was not your average Bro. He's an adoring father of two little boys, and husband to his lovely wife, Emily. He's also infinitely more maternal than I will ever be, and he's incredibly sensitive to the challenges people, and women in particular, face when they embark on changing their lives in a dramatic way. Powerlifting is traditionally a man's sport, and seeing women lifting heavy is unusual and threatening for a lot of people (men and women). If I was seriously going to do this, I needed an ally who would explain this new language and world to me. Dan's that guy. He not only accepts women in the space, he actively promotes and celebrates them. Dan's the guide through the wilderness of physical transformation, and the sometimes scary jungle of the gym.
And I'm no easy task. I'm ridiculously impatient. I want result now, and I am willing to hurt myself to get them. I analyze things to within an inch of their lives (thank you doctoral degree!), and I hound Dan incessantly with questions about everything. "Why is it called a 'kettlebell' and not a 'kettleball'? It's a ball, not a bell." "Why can't I workout seven days a week?" "I can't possibly need to eat 3,000 calories a day! WTF?" And every time Dan responds with the same patience and determination to make sure I do what I need to do, not what I want to do... dude is Chill AF.
Meanwhile, over in my kitchen this lifelong professional chef was trying to figure out the whole "no dairy" lifestyle. Chefs eat... it's our job. You have to know what things taste like to know how they will combine to make new taste and flavors. We are professionally obligated to eat whatever we can, whenever it's made available. However that incessant drive to consume often leads exactly to where I was... sick and sidelined with a garden variety of physical maladies. When I removed dairy from my diet I noticed the inflammation in my hip almost went away. As I improved my muscular strength it has completely disappeared. It became clear to me that this doctor-chef needed to heal herself. The answer was in the food. The food was the medicine.
Not being able to eat dairy logically led to learning a lot about plant-based cooking, including a short stint as a vegan. I enrolled in Cornell's Plant Based Nutrition program (and became certified in March), and then set out to make this often maligned and unappetizing diet taste fabulous. I have long believed that the true mark of a gifted chef is her (or his) ability to cook vegetables properly. It's pretty easy to make meat taste good; throw some butter on it and you're good to go. "Fat is flavor" is the mantra of most restaurant kitchens. Put some cheese in whatever you got going and you're good to go... I know this because I sold a lot of cheese that way; it's an easy out.
The real masters know how to make vegetables taste good because of their inherent qualities, not by shrouding them in animal fat. Raw by Charlie Trotter was eye opening for me... unapproachable and unrealistic, but unbelievable. Of course, there are the many Chez Panisse cookbooks that focus heavily on plant based cooking. And Jaques Maniere's The Art of Cooking With Steam introduces many ideas for plant based preparations that don't load on the dairy. And then we've got the whole sous vide movement... but I'll leave that for another blog post.
I've been a cook for a long time, but this was a new challenge, and I was invigorated by it. It was the first time in a long while I had a deep passion to learn about cooking again. Yes, I eat meat. Yes, Mouth & Muscle prepares meat in our meal service, and promotes it in our culinary coaching, but we also love our phytochemicals (nutrients derived from plants). And we embrace our vegan brothers and sisters with open arms.
Between the gym and my kitchen, I started to change physically, emotionally, and on a deeper, more spiritual level. I found a new passion for being in my body. I became fascinated with nutrition, and completed the Precision Nutrition level one certification. Working out and eating in alignment with what my body wanted was no longer a prison sentence, and I was no longer driven to eat what my subconscious mind had been habituated to wanting after years of over-indulgence, . I stopped having a "final destination" weight, or goal, and instead completely and totally fell in love with living in a 48 year old body that moved and functioned like it was 32.
I knew how to make healthy food taste amazing, and Dan knew how to get my body to build muscle without destroying itself. And that, my friends, is the exact moment when Mouth and Muscle was born.
One day I emailed Dan and told him I had finally figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up... I wanted to spend every waking hour reveling in healthy food and being strong, and I wanted to spread that to the entire world. My thought was, that if everyone felt this good, there would be less bad stuff because everyone would just be happy. And I wanted him to help me do it. Flash forward a couple months, and you are now perusing the fruits of those initial conversations. This is the nexus of two people's very different skill sets, but very similar passions - making life better through eating and moving.
Dan and I are very different people, but there are a few things we absolutely agree on... meat is good, and life is better when you are strong and healthy. Your world is easier to navigate when your body is capable of meeting the challenges it will invariably face. Food and fitness are not punishments for bad behavior. Instead, they are places to explore who you are, and what you are capable of becoming - places of great joy, and unlimited possibility. You don't work out to get somewhere, you work out to be where you are right now, fully present in the body you have at this very moment.
So, welcome to Mouth & Muscle. This is our community, and I sincerely hope it will become your community.