What Lies Beneath

Everything can look good on the surface, but what lies beneath can be the key to improvement. I grew up in a small town. Everyone knew everyone’s business. At least everyone knew how to keep up appearances. It was clear then, and is clear now, keeping up appearances can interfere with building healthier lives.


More and more of us are getting caught in this trap because social media functions much like a small town. You can put your best face forward, control the narrative, and avoid the need to make any substantial change to your real life.

We all want to present ourselves in the best possible light. That’s human nature and good marketing. And there’s nothing wrong with that…to a point. But the temptation is to become so married to a particular narrative that we stop telling ourselves the truth. This is especially true when the warped version of the truth is gaining us positive attention or accolades.

The opposite can also be true. If we are accustomed to being treated as though our accomplishments don’t matter, we may become married to a story that doesn’t allow us to recognize and celebrate real achievement. Or we may repeatedly take on the role of the victim or downtrodden.

I know from years of interviewing job candidates, most of us are either terrible self-assessors or remarkable fibbers. And it seems like we’ve become more thin-skinned. Knowing this, it’s difficult to get reliable, balanced feedback. This in turn feeds our skewed vision of ourselves.

So what, you may ask. If I want to see myself as perfect, isn’t that a reflection of good self-esteem? Uh no, no one is perfect. If I don’t take credit, isn’t that a reflection of my humility? Uh, maybe. But it could also be that you don’t take credit because you might be asked to perform at a higher level next time and you don’t want to put out any more effort.

Honest assessment of ourselves and our environment, situation, values, limits, and abilities are key to maximizing health. Without it, improvement programs will not work other than for a short period of time. Or we’ll never embark on a journey toward betterment because we simply won’t see the need.

What can we do to support honest evaluation of what lies beneath?

Learn about our relationship to shame. If shame is getting in the way, learn techniques for bypassing this obstacle. Dr. Brené Brown is a great resource for this exploration.

Flip the script. Challenge yourself to answer questions with answers opposite to your normal response then sit with the reverse answer and see how it feels. We know the truth deep down. If the opposite feels like there’s some truth to it, begin further investigation. You don’t have to do this in an environment that would threaten your job or family. Use online personality assessments, interest surveys, dating sites, etc. for this purpose (read privacy policies carefully).

Listen to friends who aren’t afraid to deliver bad news. The friend who tells you your shoes don’t smell bad when you know you just stepped in dog poop is not a reliable resource. They can still be your friends, just don’t include them when you need reliable feedback. Skips the opinion of friends who specialize in bad news as well. Their bias is unhelpful as well.

Practice self-care. Hearing the truth will sometimes be hard and temporarily painful. Regular self-care practices will create some insulation that makes be pain feel less intense.

Remember the benefit. Like GI Joe said, “Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that. Once we clearly understand who we are and where we are in our journey, we can move forward efficiently and effectively. Think of honest assessment as removing half the obstacles. Whew! Who wouldn’t want to do that?

I know that realistic self-assessment is easier said than done when we dig deep into those things we’ve never spoken out loud. At one point, I just stood in the mirror and asked myself to name the worst thing I’d ever done. Once I did that, I asked myself whether I could forgive a friend who had done the same thing. The answer felt freeing.

I followed that by asking myself if there was any way I could begin to view the moment in which I experienced the worst thing ever done to me as one in which the universe was as it was meant to be. This one is really hard. But when bad things happen to other people, we often take this view. Why not try on how it might feel from the inside? Again, the answer felt freeing. It didn’t immediately change anything, but it did take away some of the feeling of being personally targeted.

The success of many projects is determined by the preparation that precedes it. Exploring what lies beneath the appearance we project can be the key to achieving better health.

Cake Puzzles

Nestled in the back of my mother’s recipe box I found instructions for several FUN-TO-MAKE CUT-UP CAKEs or, as I like to call them, cake puzzles. Printed on thick cardboard, and obviously torn from a box, these gems describe the steps for creating ducks, dogs, and butterflies using regular cake pans. These strips are all I have left, but I remember booklets she used to create other shapes as well.


I love that you can do something themed and fun without buying extra equipment. And there are plenty of events coming up this month that could use a cute cake – the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and a couple of family birthdays. Why not go retro with cake puzzles?

The key to making this work will be a gluten-free cake that will hold together well and taste yummy. Our family has a combination of people who can and can’t tolerate gluten. I don’t feel a need to make two cakes as long as the gluten-free one is delicious with pleasing texture. For this task, I’ll opt for a white or chocolate cake because they’re tried and true and hold together well.

With that said, I’ve never tried a cut-up cake using any of my go-to cake recipes. It would be good form to bake a test cake prior to an event. It would also be unlike me, so I will probably wing it and consider what I serve the guests a test. That leaves lots of room for embarrassment, but it saves me time and ingredients.

I need to choose a shape. I can keep a Super Bowl cake simple by drawing a football field on a sheet cake from which I have removed and stacked strips to form bleachers. Another option is to remove a strip from the center of a round cake to create a football. For Valentine’s Day, I could use a square pan and round pan to create heart, but I could also make Cupid’s arrow, a car, or a dog (anything your valentine loves is appropriate). One of the birthdays demands a dinosaur. I’ll have to figure that one out.

For many shapes, you’ll be able to find an existing schematic – Mom’s strips have instructions for making a dog. Other shapes may require an internet search or a model to copy. If you only have a rectangular pan, look for patterns that use rectangles. If you only have round pans, use a pattern that begins with circles.

Create or place your pattern. Sketch or lay out the shapes you need in a space the size of your cake pans. Once you’ve puzzled the best way to make the pieces fit, print the pattern on paper, place the paper on foam board, and cut out the foam board shapes. Put the shapes on top of the cake and cut around them.

If you’re a decent freehand artist, you don’t even have to go to that trouble. Transfer your puzzle directly to the top of the cake by scoring each shape into it gently with the tip of a knife. Another option is to draw the shapes on the cake thin lines of frosting and cut along those lines.

Some directions for cut cakes may suggest layering. With gluten-free cakes, it’s probably better to bake the cake in thin layers rather than slicing layers in half. This may require more pans or more time so that pans can be used twice, but will help the cake hold together.

Most retro cut cakes keep it simple, but if you’re looking to construct something tall, you may need support pieces in the form of cake boards, foam core, or plastic sheets. You may also need straws to stabilize vertical builds. Make sure any surface that touches the cake is made of food-safe material.

Before construction begins, choose a base to hold your cake. It can be your serving pan, a cake board, a foil wrapped piece of cardboard, or a plate. Whatever it is, the cake will need to stay on it. Transferring risks destroying all of your hard work.

As you build, you may want to use frosting to hold layers together or disguise an accidental oops. You’ll also need frosting for decoration. Either store-bought or homemade is fine. Making your own frosting and tinting it with food color as needed will be the most economical route to take. It will also give you the most flexibility to alter your design as needed.

For perfectly smooth surfaces, you can purchase fondant. My cakes won’t require this effect, so I’ll stick with buttercream. Other decorative effects can be made using combinations of candy, marshmallows, coconut, cookie crumbs, colored sugar, sprinkles, and piped frosting. Premade cake decorations are available as well. Don’t worry too much about things looking perfect. Just have fun with your design.

Get the kids involved! Cut-up cakes are a visual geometry lesson. In my kitchen, they’ll most likely be an exercise in problem solving as well. I just keep in mind that the best food often comes from near disasters and keep moving forward.

I’m looking forward to solving some cake puzzles this month. I plan to go crazy with color and texture on top. I’m not too concerned about the visual results. The appeal for me is the puzzle solving and the chance to play with my food!

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!


Salad or Dessert?

I ran across a salad that begs the question – salad or dessert? I was researching regionally favored dishes when I noticed a mention of Snickers Salad. SNICKERS® like the candy bar, I wondered. So, I looked it up. And yes, it is Snickers like the candy bar.

Snickers salad is popular in the US Upper Midwest. It’s made by combining chopped up Snickers bars with chopped Granny Smith apples, whipped cream, and pudding. Some people drizzle it a little caramel sauce. And while it fits one dictionary definition of salad – any mixture or assortment – this is definitely dessert.

granny smith apples

Snickers salad reminds me of a salad my family served made by combining Cool Whip, cottage cheese, uncooked strawberry Jell-O®, and canned pineapple. You can include mini marshmallows and I think someone dared to add coconut once. I didn’t understand why we called that salad either, but I consumed it.

Both of these dessert salads get 5 stars when you search online recipes. And it looks like some families have fancy names and use fresh fruit in their Cool Whip/Jello salad. We were never that sophisticated.

Now I’m learning there’s a similar salad in the Midwest called Watergate salad. This version is made with pistachio pudding, canned pineapple, Cool Whip, marshmallows, and crushed pecans. Pistachio and crushed pecans are a bit highbrow for my family so no surprise I haven’t heard of this one. Apparently, the recipe was published by General Foods, I’m guessing around 1972.

I guess the molded Jello salads of 1960s popularity set the stage for more decadent salads to follow. And thank goodness, because I’ve never met a Jello salad I liked. You may be able to coat fruit cocktail in bright red Jell-O and make it more pleasing to the eye, but you can’t make the texture or flavor appeal to me.

A discussion of dessert salads has to include ambrosia. This occasionally made the table at family gatherings. Popular here in the South, it contains mandarin oranges, pineapple, marshmallows, coconut, and chopped pecans. My grandmother liked to add apples. Seems like there may have been maraschino cherries in it as well although I don’t think they were always included. All of this was tossed with a combination of sour cream and Cool Whip.

One of the best things about dessert salads is how quick and easy they are to make. Sometimes there’s a little chopping, but mostly there’s dumping, mixing, and serving. And as desserts go, at least some of them contain nuts, fresh fruit, and cottage cheese or sour cream.

I’ve been known to eat in a nontraditional order. That means I can eat one of these salads at any point in a meal and feel just fine about it.

There are enough of these mixtures, we should probably create a food category specifically called Dessert Salads. But until we do, you just have to go by the ingredients to know whether the course they belong in is salad or dessert.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wishful Eating

You won’t reach optimal health through wishful eating. If you read enough studies and watch enough food documentaries, you’ll find so much conflicting information it may seem as if wishful eating will work as well as following any specific eating regimen. There may be a kernel of truth in that belief, but for most of us, eating for optimal health will require knowledge and discipline.

What is wishful eating?

Wishful eating is like wishful thinking. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines wishful thinking as: the attribution of reality to what one wishes to be true or the tenuous justification of what one wants to believe

Wishful eating is similar in that we decide whatever we want to eat is healthy for us even when we have evidence to the contrary. For example, someone with a diagnosis of celiac disease may decide it’s okay to eat birthday cake as along as they don’t eat bread. But the fact is that birthday cake will damage their small intestine in the same manner as bread. It’s not healthier because we like it better. fried chicken, fried fish, pinto beans, mashed potatoes, and pizza take their place.

I’ve seen wishful eating that meant a person never ate sandwiches or rolls because they “don’t eat” carbs. On the other hand, they consumed potato chips almost every day and pizza two or three times a week. While it’s true eliminating sandwich bread and rolls reduces the total amount of grain carbs consumed, if you’re eating potato chips and pizza, you DO eat carbs.

Wishful eating is sometimes wishful shopping. I have friends whose pantries and refrigerators are continually stocked with lettuce, green beans, turkey, chicken, steak, cheese, apples, oranges, and pineapple, but when mealtime comes, the food remains undisturbed. Fast food or soul food that fresh food in the house, its easier to hold onto the idea that they are eating healthily.

All of us indulge in wishful eating occasionally. The eating itself may not be problematic. The larger risk is when it becomes a habit. By its nature, wishful thinking requires setting aside reality in favor of what we want to believe. That can make it difficult to tell ourselves the truth.

Without the truth, we are likely to deny or ignore anything that needs to change. And until we can clearly identify the obstacles that keep us from optimum health, we cannot begin to change them. Wishful eating is a way for us to remain stuck and not feel conflicted or remorseful.

It’s also a way for us to sway others to support our current path. And with reinforcement, change becomes even more elusive.

Perhaps this is a good time to discard old habits along with our used holiday gift wrap and regroup for a healthier 2023! The magic begins when wishful eating ends!