The past couple of semesters, I’ve taught a graduate class on theories of behavior change in nutrition and public health promotion. (Talk about a mouthful of a course name, right?!) One of my favorite theories we cover in this class is one called Self Determination Theory.
I like it because in many fields, health promotion most definitely among them, we spend a lot of time thinking about what people are doing wrong and trying to figure out how we can convince them to do what we think is best for them based on what we (the experts, that is) think is important. And, when you spend a whole lot of energy focusing on the many things people aren’t doing or don’t really want to do, it’s easy to forget that people are also capable of amazing joy, creativity, curiosity, and completely intrinsic motivation.
Self Determination Theory is exactly about that. About where people’s motivation comes from and how the more they can connect a behavior with things that intrinsically motivate them, the more they will internalize that behavior, and the more likely they are to keep doing it.
Each of us has our own set of activities we find intrinsically motivating. For some it is dance, for others it is building furniture. You may love math, or writing, or music, or public speaking, or teaching, or taking care of others, or sorting, or finding patterns. But, whatever the activity, intrinsic motivation means you do it because you simply enjoy the activity itself and the feelings it conjures, rather than doing it for some type of reward or specific gain (and that actually includes avoiding guilt or receiving praise).
There are also a few fundamental characteristics that tend to make something more intrinsically motivating. We enjoy a behavior more if it helps us feel more autonomous, if it helps us relate to and connect to others, or if it makes us feel like a competent person (which doesn’t mean that you don’t ever struggle with whatever it is you’re motivated to do. But rather, each small achievement you do make is so satisfying, it’s worth all the effort and tears you put into it).
Oh sorry. Am I turning this into a lecture? I can get a little didactic when I get onto certain subjects – thankfully Joel does not hesitate to point this out as necessary to keep my dinner party acceptability level up! But, hey, I managed to leave my powerpoint slides tucked away in their file, so we haven’t gotten too academic yet, right?
Anyhow, I was thinking about self determination and motivation as I was preparing these strawberries. I felt so happy as I sliced them up, smelled their roasting jammy sweetness, and whipped honey into goat cheese, I wanted to sing. I did sing. I sing to myself a lot.
I almost always feel at least internally motivated to cook. I value cooking because I value good flavors, knowing where my food comes from, being able to eat healthfully, and sharing time with others over meals. But, on the best days, I value it for itself. Because it’s just fun to work with beautiful ingredients, and evocative scents, and to take an idea you have and actually see it through to a final product.
That’s how I felt about these strawberries. I was thrilled with the idea when I had it, and then giddy with the results I achieved. I didn’t make them in order to be showered with compliments by those I served them to, though that did wind up happening. I didn’t even make them because I wanted a dessert that would be exceptionally delicious, fresh, and healthy, though that turned out to be the case. I did it just because it felt fun.
The fun grows exponentially when I can share with others, however. Perhaps that fits in with the whole relatedness element of self determination. Getting to share them with you, I’m feeling the same bubbling overflow of effusiveness as a child who turned over a rock and found a fantastic colony of potato bugs and who then runs to fetch his friends so they can see too.
It actually started with the goat cheese. One of the things I find most immensely satisfying in the whole world is eating whipped cream. It’s a rather indulgent habit, if I do say so myself, and one I have to curb with a firm hand, to avoid making spoon meets bowl of cream, meets mouth into a daily ritual. I love the sumptuous texture of cream and the airy fluffiness imparted by whipping.
The other day, because of another project I’m working on, I wound up whipping together some cream, some sheep’s milk yogurt, and a sticky spoonful of honey. The alchemy of the three was magic. The richness of the cream was beautifully cut by the barnyard tang of the sheep’s milk, and the honey imparted a smooth liquid gold flavor and buttery prom corsage yellow color. It also made me wonder what it would be like with chevre instead of yogurt. I’ve enjoyed whipped chevre in many savory iterations, but no sweet ones. It was time to change that.
Using chevre in the stead of yogurt made for a truly gorgeous bowl of lightly whipped snowy peaks. A sturdier texture, an even more pronounced citric tang, and I swear there was a hint of hay and violets. I licked the beaters with gusto, and stole a couple tastes with the crook of my finger. But, I decided, while I would gladly eat this chevre mixture on its own as a rather lavish mousse, it was giving me hard to ignore nudges in the direction of adding some stewy, soupy, lushly cooked fruit.
Almost any fruit would do nicely, but we had strawberries, and they proved themselves an ideal match. The idea of roasting strawberries came from Heidi’s Super Natural Everyday, into the back of which is tucked a recipe for roasted berries with port wine and balsamic. Roasting the berries, rather than cooking them stovetop, gives you more concentrated berry flavor than you could possibly imagine being packed into a strawberry. And while the berries become soft and spoonable, they stay intact, rather than turning into a sauce, which gives you a lovely texture for eating. And the shining juices that accumulate in the baking pan thicken into a ruby colored syrup that tastes as fresh as fruit, not overly sweet.
They taste like a miraculous, peak of June, strawberry pie, without any interference from a pie crust. (Which is not to say I don’t also love a good pie crust and think it has its place. It’s just, sometimes, many times even, the fruit really does deserve to be given the run of the place.)
The juicy, bursting strawberries, in combination with the sweet whipped cheese are a match made in the most pastoral of heavens. They conjured up all sorts of childhood flavor memories of wandering through tranquil fields, along forest edges, collecting tiny sun-ripened strawberries and threading them onto long pieces of wild grass for carrying, and then eating later, one by one, using our lips to carefully pull them off.
And then the reason for my utter giddiness dawned on me. Talk about connecting something to things I care about! Beauty, flavor, health, family memories, and now sharing with others. This dessert (or breakfast, if you wish, given that it’s pretty much fruit, cheese, and honey) seems to have it all.
Roasted Strawberries with Whipped, Honeyed Chevre (serves 4)
- 1 lb. strawberries, hulled and quartered (or halved, if they are small)
- 1 spoonful of raw cane sugar or maple syrup
- a couple drops good balsamic vinegar
- 4 oz. chevre (soft, fresh goat cheese)
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 generous Tbs. honey (preferably raw honey)
- Preheat your oven to 325F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Then, toss the strawberries with a spoonful of sugar or maple syrup and spread them on the baking sheet. Roast them in the oven for 35-40 minutes, until the strawberries are totally soft and sweet and the juices have thickened, but aren’t burning. Remove from the oven, transfer to a bowl and stir in the vinegar. Use warm or cooled.
- Combine the chevre, cream, and honey in a bowl. Using an electric mixer, whip until fluffy and stiff peaks form.
- Divide the strawberries and the whipped chevre into four bowls, and serve.