It’s Christmas time again or as I call it Chia season. I finally need to know, what the heck is chia? What would happen if I dumped all my chia seeds in my garden and just let them grow? Who dreamed up a Chia Pet and thought the rest of us would want one?
— Chia Wonderer, via email
First of all, an excited “thank you” from Grandma Alice. She’s been contemplating what to plant on the south 40 this spring, and your question solved the problem. She’s stoked. The Alices will have the raddest backyard in the nabe. Acres of chia, without the benefit of little clay homunculi that look like Homer Simpson or Scooby-Doo.
The chia family tree goes back to that fun group, the salvias (mint is a close relative), with all their weird and smokable offshoots. Chia is actually Salvia hispanica, native to central and south Mexico and Guatemala, now cultivated for the seeds in Mexico and Central and parts of South America. They’re leeeetle gray, black, white, or mottled seeds that sprout three-foot stalks with fuzzy leaves, ending in a spike of blue-purple or white flowers, like so many of the other salvias. The seeds have been used as food or drink in the southern Americas for thousands of years. Along with corn, it was a staple of the Aztec diet. Perhaps the Aztecs invented the toothpick at the same time.
Just now they’re making a big comeback on our health-nut diets. Drs. Weil and Oz go crazy for chias. Loaded with protein, calories, anti-oxidants, good fats, fiber, calcium, and a bunch of other vitamins and minerals. Chia sellers make great claims for the seeds as a weight-loss miracle. But weight-loss claims are a sure-fire marketing tool these days, and some are pretty iffy. Put chias in that group.
Chias can be ground or whole in baked goods and cereals, offered as a (probably messy) toasted snack, sprouted for salads, and used as a base for smoothies. Yes, chia smoothies. Here’s a recipe, with a very telling note at the end. Throw a few tablespoons of seeds in a blender with water or juice and blend away. Let the mess sit for five minutes or so until it begins to gel. That’s the protein combining with the liquid. It turns goopy. “Enjoy it chilled,” the chef advises. We all know what that means. It means this stuff is pretty disgusting, but if it’s really cold you’ll be able to slug it down without tasting it too much. You’ve been warned.
So how did chias go from the Aztec dinner table to the American window sill? About 50 years ago, an American wandering through Mexico saw Chia Pet precursors for sale as curios. He knew it was a ridiculous something that would appeal to Americans’ love of ridiculous somethings, and he brought the idea back to the U.S. No marketing whiz, he let the Chia Pet mostly sit around in his warehouse. But in the 1970s, an even more savvy seller of ridiculous somethings spotted them at a Chicago trade fair, knew he’d struck idiotic gold, and bought the rights. He marketed the heck out of them, got permission to make the containers in the likeness of popular characters, and bombarded the Christmas airwaves with ads. He also wrote the jaunty jingle we have stuck in our heads through November and December. He sells half a million every Christmas. And I’d guess we throw out half a million every Groundhog Day. These days, of course, Ch-ch-ch-chias are made in — where else? — Ch-ch-ch-China.
I’m at work and I’m very fidgety. I always get fidgety at work. I tap my toes and fingernails and mess with my stapler and stuff. I don’t notice doing this much at home. What’s my body trying to tell me? Am I bored?
— Fidgety Fillis, San Diego
Bored and, uh, afraid. Calm down, Fidge, and we’ll poke around to find a full explanation. Consider research done in England, at the University of Hertfordshire. They probed the brains of English fidgeters and discovered some interesting tidbits. People in the clutches of high anxiety are the toe-tap, leg-jiggle, arm-stretch fidgeters. Physical movements like those are your attempt to work off the stress-inducing cortisol that’s building up in your system, the result of fight-or-flight feelings. Got a mean boss? Fidgeting is your way of dealing with him/her instead of making a screaming dash out the door. Cortisol also interferes with learning, so fidgeting before test time might actually be helpful to calm you down.
Fidgeters who did things like spinning pens and twisting paper clips into weird shapes were the boredom fidgeters. It’s still a stress reaction, but not as intense or as directed. You’re just bored and your brain needs something to do, anything to take your mind off it and handle the creeping cortisol.