Sometime in the early 1980s, my mother discovered exercise.
First there was aerobics, with its perky wardrobe of pastel tights and leotards with matching elastic belts, legwarmers, and sweatbands. For many of my formative years, I quite nearly lived at the Workout, an aerobics studio in northwest Oklahoma City. Mom would suit up in her Spandex; pack a bag of books, markers, and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish to keep me busy; and off we’d go. For those who wonder about the origins of my uncanny ability to remember song lyrics of the period, look no further: I owe it all to the Workout and countless hours spent listening to Whitney Houston, the Pointer Sisters, and the thud of Reeboks reverberating off the studio mirrors.
As one might expect, my mother turned out to be quite a natural, and it wasn’t long before we were friendly with all the instructors—part of the gang, if you will. I developed a preschool “crush” on the prettiest, nicest one and decided that I wanted to change my name to Sherry in her honor. Luckily, however, that did not come to pass, and so the most lasting element of the aerobics years would turn out to be my mother’s fifteen minutes of fame: an appearance on the local morning television show hosted by brothers Butch and Ben McCain,* where Mom and the Workout instructors did an aerobics demonstration in their shimmery tights.
But not long after reaching such heights, Mom was converted to weight training, an endeavor that lacked music, special outfits, and therefore basic appeal, at least to my way of thinking. Mom, however, charged on, scoring impressive biceps and pects for her petite 5’¾” frame. Weight training then led her into the personal-training craze of the early 90s, and before I knew it, Mom was a certified trainer herself, driving to meet clients all over town with Dynabands and Pearl, a giant iridescent rubber ball, in her backseat. Then, several years ago, she morphed into her latest incarnation, a certified Pilates instructor with her own very chic studio, and it looks as though this is where she’ll stay.
But my mother’s two-plus decades of fitness genius have brought me more than a near name-change, mad ‘80s karaoke skills, and a pricey devotion to Pilates. They’ve also brought me Rancho La Puerta, and, even more importantly, fantastic whole wheat bread.
When I was eight or so, Mom was introduced by an old friend to “the Ranch,” a fitness spa in humble Tecate, Mexico. I went with her on her first visit, sneaking in an emergency stash of Oreos, Nestle Quik, and sugared cereal, junk food I’d never be allowed at home but that somehow seemed necessary for a pre-pre-teen at a borderline-hippie vegetarian health spa. I tried to join in on a few aerobics classes, bouncing on my gangly legs and hiding in the back row, but suffice it to say that I was unenthused. It would be nearly a decade before Mom would take me with her again, for a spring break trip during my junior year of high school.
This time, I knew a good thing when I saw it, and for the four or five years that followed, the Ranch was our annual springtime extravagance. From early-morning hikes in the meadow, watching lizards and rabbits scamper under the tall dewy grass, to breakfasts of hearty toasted Ranch bread and pear butter, afternoon Pilates classes, and naps in shaded hammocks, I soaked it up. Nearly every night we treated ourselves to pre-dinner massages that would leave us warm, greasy, and hungry, and we’d always ask for seconds of dessert—that is, when we weren’t lying about my date of birth in order to get dense and delicious Ranch-style whole wheat birthday cakes with tofu icing. Sometimes there were nighttime workshops (“Dance with Yuichi!”) or bingo (Ranch granola for winners!), but Mom and I only rallied on special occasions, such as when Beverly Whipple, fellow guest, noted sexologist, and straight-talker, gave a workshop on “Sexuality: Yours, Mine, and Ours.” Though some things are best experienced without one’s parents (or children), Mom and I put on poker faces, talked erogenous zones, and even partnered on the hand-caressing exercise ole Bev ordered up. And then, as with every other night, we walked through the quiet, cold air to our tile-floored hacienda and collapsed into our beds, spread with Mexican yellows and pinks. A genius indeed, that mother of mine.
Unfortunately, and for a host of reasons, our Ranch years seem to have gone the way of aerobics. Among today’s list of necessary extravagances, a fitness spa doesn’t take top billing. But that’s alright, because after all, there were those pesky wild dogs that would howl outside our little villa at night, and by the end of a few days of high-minded virtuousness, I was pretty cranky for a mouthful—or ten—of chocolate. And anyway, I can wake up in my own quiet bed, look out over the dewy trash in the street, watch cars scamper across the parking lot, and eat my toasted Ranch bread, any day, all right here in Seattle.
* For a real treat, click on the “Music” link and scroll down to the heartwarming photo of Butch and Ben with Buck and Roy of HeeHaw. Now, that’s fame.
Rancho La Puerta Whole Wheat Bread
Adapted from The Rancho La Puerta Cookbook: 175 Bold Vegetarian Recipes from America’s Premier Fitness Spa, with thanks to jolly Bill Wavrin
At the Ranch, this simple, dense bread is served toasted at breakfast and, still warm from the oven, in baskets on each table at dinner. You’ll note that the original recipe calls for no salt(!), a purposeful omission that makes for a wonderfully clean, healthy-tasting bread. I’ve grown to like it that way, but you can easily make a more fully-flavored, “normal” version by adding up to 2 teaspoons of fine sea salt when you mix in the flour.
¼ cup honey
2 Tbs (2 packages) active dry yeast
2 Tbs canola oil
6 ½ cups whole wheat flour, plus more as needed
2 tsp salt
In a mixing bowl, combine 3 ½ cups tepid water, the honey, yeast, and oil. Stir and set aside for 5 or 6 minutes, until mixture bubbles and foams. In the meantime, spray two 8- by 5-inch loaf pans with cooking spray.
Add the flour, a cup or so at a time, and the optional salt, mixing with your hands or a wooden spoon until the dough comes together and forms a manageable ball. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes, until your hands come clean when lifted from the dough and the dough is smooth and elastic. [To test if the dough is well kneaded, insert a clean thumb into the dough, and count to 5. If your thumb comes out clean, the dough is kneaded properly, and you don’t need to add any more flour.]
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Divide the dough into two equal-sized pieces, and shape into loaves. Place loaves in pans. Cover with dish towels, and set aside in a warm, draft-free place for 40 minutes to 1 hour, until doubled in bulk.
Bake bread on the center rack of the oven for about 40 minutes, until the crusts are golden brown and the loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom. Cool completely on wire racks before slicing.
Yield: 2 loaves