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Beer School - Martha Carr

I'm an optimist by nature, and combined with just a little faith, this often translates to mean that I'm willing to approach something, time and again, from slightly different angles. Sometimes, that's a great trait, like when I'm learning a new skill that's not coming very easily to me. Sometimes, it's crazy, such as setting a date with the same person and being disappointed they had an excuse at the last second, yet again.

It's just time to stop and move on to other things.

Cooking is one of those areas that I've had to approach from every angle and just hang in there. It's no secret that I'm better at consuming food than actually cooking anything. Frankly, losing weight and getting healthy is another realm that has confounded me for years. I've shared that long road with readers because I figure there are probably a few of us who are struggling with being accountable to our dinner plate.

I have to keep working at that one because there are some very real consequences to quality and length of life, if I don't get my act together. My doctor has given me a five-year window to get on board, and I'm doing my best not to wait three years before I start to do anything.

To learn a different way of approaching food, I checked out the Whole Foods Grocery Store chain, which offers affordable cooking classes of all sorts at locations throughout the United States. I first tried them out in the Bowery and learned a few winning recipes from some Manhattan restaurant chefs, as well as a runner-up on "Top Chef." There are classes on knife skills, to cooking fish, to appreciating cheese and they're all a lot of fun. Plus, you get to eat whatever it is you're cooking or chopping.

That's how I ended up at Beer School in Chicago this past week learning the correct way to first appreciate the color and smell of beer as we swirled the glasses before taking a swig. The class was being taught by the former beer buyer at a Chicago location, Scott, who is now the cheese monger. He pointed out that good cheese actually should accompany good beer, instead of being used to mask bad wine.

The class was sold out. People were crowded around the room swirling and sipping and getting louder with each tasting. That many people being willing to come and find out how to correctly drink beer has to be a sign of an improving economy. Alec, who stood next to me and is a home brewer, swore that was the biggest class he ever saw. Alec also tasted each beer with his eyes closed and a look of some reverence, which reminded me once again that America is a really fun place to live. We have the opportunity to find our particular passions and then revel in them, whether it's beer-making or sky diving or reenacting the Revolutionary War. It's all good.

In this month's Beer School, we were all sampling Mid-West craft brews, which means a brewery that puts out less than two million barrels per year. There were six samplings and my favorites were first, the Flossmoor Station Master Wheat Ale started by a husband-and-wife team in Flossmoor, Illinois. The beer had a nice effervescence, and according to the class, was very tasty. We weren't much better at the adjectives than "yummy" and "tastes like wheat."

The other winner was the Hoppin' Frog Barrel-Aged B.O.R.I.S. Imperial Stout out of Akron, Ohio, that, according to Scott, uses a little oatmeal to provide all that smoothness. Erin, the school teacher on my other side said, "It's like drinking a pretzel!"

None of this improved my cooking skills, but being able to see the fun in anything increases the likelihood of being open-minded when it comes to the harder stuff like learning healthy recipes and making better choices. Rather than settling for fast food or a frozen dinner in a pretty box, I might just buy a few ingredients and see if this time it all works out. A side bonus is that I've been inviting a lot more people over to test drive different recipes for me, and so my circle of friends has grown and the bonds have become stronger even if occasionally the food is only so-so.

Next week, I'm learning how vegetables are medicine. I'll let you know. More adventures to follow.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail Martha at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.