Reading My Way to Straight Up Food

by moonwatcher on October 30, 2012

When I was growing up, my mother used to say, “If you can read, you can cook.” So from the very start of my cooking career, I carefully poured over the instructions in the Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls, certain if I followed the instructions faithfully, my creations would turn out. This was reinforced dramatically for me when at 8 I undertook to make the Molasses Crisp recipe in the book for my brownie troop.

I had carefully measured the salt and the baking soda to the exact teaspoon, but had spilled quite a bit in the process. My Dad entered the kitchen, and seeing the pile of flour, soda and salt on the cutting board, thought he’d “help” me by scraping it up and adding it to the mixing bowl, against my protests that it shouldn’t go in. (My Dad, by the way, God rest his wonderful Soul, was a terrible cook. And he didn’t read anything except the newspaper.) It took me a long time to get over the mortification I felt as I watched the faces on my brownie troop as they politely tried to eat these salty, tough cookies, and my troop leader tried to smooth things over. From then on I was a fastidious stickler for following the recipes I tried exactly. I never lost the assumption that my early and voracious reading was an indispensible companion to my developing skill as a cook and a baker.

So when I first started eating this way, naturally I went on a long, long recipe reading quest. My whole life I have considered food a primary medicine; in the nearly 17 years since my diagnosis, I have never taken any meds for MS.  The very first thing I read on my quest was the Swank Diet web site. The diet is summarized there, but I ordered The Multiple Sclerosis Diet Book by Dr. Swank because I wanted to read every word and see if there was any reason not to do it vegan, since I knew in my heart that would be best for me. I couldn’t find anything that said I shouldn’t. In fact, Dr. Swank writes that his diet can be followed vegetarian, but he didn’t spaecifically advocate that. He also wrote that although he recommends a teaspoon of cod liver oil a day,  for those who couldn’t tolerate it, linseed oil would be just fine. These are the old fashioned names for fish oil and flax oil.

At first I poured over his table for conversions of how many nuts and how much oil translated into how many grams of fat, so I would be sure to stay in  his recommended range, which is between 20 and 50 grams of fat. Careful reading revealed he preferred people to stay at 20 grams or below for combined saturated and unsaturated fats in order for his diet to yield maximum results. Later he maintained that of those, only 5 grams of saturated fat or less was ideal. Though I don’t keep track exactly anymore,  I still keep those guidelines in mind if I am adding nuts or seeds to recipes, although my actual intake of what he considered fats is always even lower than that.  Within two weeks of eating this way, I chose not to “spend” my fat grams on oil, and instead “invest” them in ground flax or walnuts.  I would later read Dr. Esselstyn’s book and settle on a tablespoon of ground flax seed a day as s good baseline for me. My personal favorite is golden flax.

From the moment I typed in “fat free vegan” to see what would come up on Google and found Fat Free Vegan Kitchen, I surfed the world of vegan and low fat vegan blogs, web sites and recipe sites, starting with the list Susan provides as a resource on her site. This activity became a profound source of support and education. Reading recipes and thinking up what I wanted to try making for the next week or so became a way to relax. That’s how I found Dr. McDougall’s site. For a long time I confined myself to the Food and Recipes section there. I’m pretty sure the first reply I ever wrote on his discussion board had to do with a blueberry muffin recipe.

I learned a lot in the first two years surfing this way on a daily basis. Through Susan’s blog I learned of Dr. Fuhrman.Through another blog on Susan’s list, Soul Veggie, I discovered Dr. and Rip Esselstyn. Venturing into The Lounge on Dr. McDougall’s site, I learned about The China Study, and took it out of the library, along with Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. I also read books by John Robbins, Dr. Jane Plant, Dr. George Jelinek, Howard Lyman, and Dr. Neal Barnard, the director of PCRM. Sometimes I would hang out at World’s Healthiest Foods and just read about the benefits of something I was currently eating, such as lentils, beets or collard greens.

Here are some beauties I got at the last farmer’s market.

In those first two years I was so delighted to have nearly instantly lost the 10-15 pounds that would edge up on me from time to time, and not have to worry about what I was now eating to keep it that way, that I baked. And baked. And baked.  The  very first year I did what I call a “science experiment” and reintroduced wheat to see if only the elimination of the saturated fats was necessary to manage the MS symptoms. But by the beginning of the next winter, my gut was telling me I needed to listen to that ELISA test of long ago that said I was intolerant of wheat. and rye. That had not shifted. I had also become sensitive to barley. So I became gluten free.

That Winter, I went through my Middle Muffin Period. All gluten free. I went back and forth between Susan’s blog and Gluten Free Goddess blog (another amazing blog I learned about from Susan, but it’s not fat free), making the former’s recipes gluten free, and the latter’s fat free. I got pretty good at it.

But into the third year, despite substantial improvements, the falls I had taken and even the low amounts of sugar I was using in these recipes began to heighten my pain response so much that I finally had to ask the doctor the question that had nagged me for some time, but that I had avoided asking: do you think I have fibromyalgia?

The answer to that question was an undeniable yes. So I cut out the sugar. And I cut down on the flour products. I decided not to bake regularly, which was a big change for me. But it has made a huge difference in my pain level.

Nearly two years ago in the Fall, I was looking for a cornbread recipe that would not require any sugar or sweetener or soy yogurt or flour, which meant giving up the one on Susan’s site that I’d loved and successfully made gluten free. I don’t remember exactly what I typed in but this recipe came up: Quinoa Cornbread. I had found Cathy Fisher’s Straight Up Food blog.

As I read the recipe I got intrigued. There was no refined flour or sugar. The cornbread was sweetened with banana and apple juice or  dates, and cooked quinoa took the place of the flour. I was in. I made this cornbread over and over, in fact so many times that I finally decided I had better write Cathy and tell her how much I liked it. That was after getting hooked on the persimmon bars over the holidays, and enjoying her homemade ketchup (sweetened with a pureed apple!), and on and on.  That was the start of another wonderful correspondence and friendship.

Here is a picture of the pumpkin soup I made last Thanksgiving. The soup in a pumpkin idea comes from Mary McDougall. The particular soup recipe is a version of one of Susan’s fantastic recipes, Ethiopian Spiced Pumpkin Bisque. And the cornbread is Cathy’s. You can see that it’s not missing anything in texture and appeal, even though it is pretty much made with out much of what usually goes into a cornbread recipe.

If you are a recipe reader and adventurer like me, here are a few of my favorites to click on:

Creamy Potato Leek Soup  (which I love to distraction)

Cabbage salad with Dijon lime dressing (which I ate versions of off and on all summer)

Breakfast Burrito Bake (which I never ate for breakfast, but happily gobbled it up for lunch and dinner.)

But what if you’re not into recipes? Cathy has another section on her blog that I also find invaluable. It’s under  “My Meals.” Here she describes and gives lovely photos of simple meals she eats at home that do not follow recipes. Her experience working in the McDougall Programs and teaching cooking classes at True North is reflected in all her suggestions. I really like this section because it gave me permission to simplify and experiment without making a whole recipe. It’s now one of my favorite things to do. I just draw on the “library” of recipes in my head from so much reading and whatever sounds good to me in the moment.

Another great tip I learned from Cathy on a guest blog post she wrote for the Engine 2 Daily Beet  blog (another great resource) is the way she makes her grocery lists. Fold a sheet of paper into 4. Then head each of the four squares of the paper with the headings “fruits,”  “veggies,”  “bulk” and “other.” For me, this is a great way to organize my list. I can read it more easily than a single column when I’m in the stimulation of the  store, and it also helps keep me on the whole foods track and not get too caught up in the “other” more processed stuff.

Although I didn’t find Straight Up Food blog until my recipe quest was slowing to a crawl, in a way it ended up being a case of saving one of the best for the last. The ideas and encouragement and delicious recipe ideas I needed to take my eating to a new level more concentrated on whole foods without sugar, salt, flour, and now, soy, were all there. I found I could avoid them all and not feel deprived. Doing so helped me get a much better handle on managing my fibromyalgia pain. So like the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I will always be grateful to both Susan and Cathy for their wonderful blogs that form the “bookends” of my adventures in reading and learning to cook this way (or the “bread”  in my plant-based sandwhich–that is, if I still ate bread). They have both always steered me true and cheered me on, and keep me licking my own lips and impressing my guests, all the while improving my health.

I now realize my Mom’s pronouncement (God rest her vivacious soul, too) was not necessarily accurate, but I still love to read recipes. I now also love to break free from them, reinvent them, or do entirely without them. Low fat plant based cooking has helped bring out this kind of creative adaptation and variation from the norm, because in essence that’s what this kind of cooking is. I remember reading Anne Esselstyn’s words that in time a cherry tomato or a bite of watermelon would taste very sweet, and a bowl of frozen grapes or banana ice cream would make a satisfying dessert. I also remember saying, out loud, “Well, I don’t know about that.” But it has turned out she is right. And I read it before I lived it. Which helped me recognize it when It happened. So maybe there is something to this mysterious connection between words and literal tastes. So have fun. “Ketchup“ on your plant-based reading, as my son Mike so artfully and playfully puts it. :)

 

Maria

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Deidre October 31, 2012 at 5:31 am

Lovely, lovely writing! Informative and interesting. I’m hooked!

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2 moonwatcher October 31, 2012 at 8:49 am

What a lovely compliment, Dierdre. Glad read you are hooked!

Maria

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3 Joy October 31, 2012 at 6:45 am

Thanks for this post, I will take the time to click thru all the informative links you have provided. So glad to hear there is a way to minimize the devastation MS and Fibromyalgia . What I find most difficult on this journey which we have only begun this summer is having to turn away from our standard comfort foods, and when I need something quick and unthinking to throw together I am still stumbling a bit, but it is getting better. I still have to think a LOT in making this change. But Hubby is supportive and the kids think it is an adventure so we shall press on! Thanks for sharing!

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4 moonwatcher October 31, 2012 at 8:49 am

Hi Joy, I hope you enjoy exploring the links. In time, you will acquire new quick and unthinking comfort foods, and over time I will be sharing more about what those now are for me. How wonderful you family is supportive. You can do it!

Maria

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5 Carleen October 31, 2012 at 11:43 am

Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time to create your own blog! I am so inspired by your stories! I have been a nutritarian vegan for 15 months now and it has changed my life. Your stories just continue to motivate me to stay on track as I am facing my second holiday time without all the “usual” food. You give more links that are new to me, so your introductions to more new friends are appreciated! Keep writing, please!

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6 moonwatcher October 31, 2012 at 6:33 pm

You’re welcome, Carleen–I am happy to hear what I write inspires you, and glad I could introduce you to more “friends” along this wonderful way.

Maria

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7 Nicole O'Shea October 31, 2012 at 11:56 am

Hi Maria, aka, Moonwatcher!

Nicoles here, aka Nicole O’Shea Thanks for telling me how to comment here so I can visit you in your new home : ) I am so looking forward to each and every magnificent post you share.

Is that a picture of the Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls? How wonderful. I love that style of illustration!

XOXOXOXO

Nicole

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8 moonwatcher October 31, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Hi Nicole!

You are welcome. I am so happy to have you here to follow along. You will make it even more fun!! And YES, that is a photo of my very own Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls open to the Molasses Crisp cookie page. For some mysterious reason it has traveled with me all my life. :)

xoxo

Maria

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9 narf7 October 31, 2012 at 4:24 pm

What a wonderful post and incredibly enlightening. I, too, am a recipe magpie. I love hunting out recipes that don’t involve processed foods and although I am not gluten intolerant or have many health complaints, I chose to modify my diet to embrace life in middle age and to set up a series of healthier options for myself into my twilight years. Cheers again for this lovely blog full of hope, possiblities and cheerful acceptance of your conditions whilst never giving up on educating yourself to improve them. I applaud you :)

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10 moonwatcher October 31, 2012 at 6:37 pm

Thank you narf7–”recipe magpie”–I love that!! And cheers to you as well for your decision to embrace life in middle age in this wonderful way. Hooray for both of us. :)

Maria

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11 Rhonda October 31, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Nice blog!

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12 moonwatcher November 1, 2012 at 8:50 am

Thanks, Rhonda, and welcome!

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13 Lani November 1, 2012 at 2:46 am

Maria,
I had to smile reading your blog particularly with the Betty Crocker cookbook. I made so many recipes from that as a child.Indeed, I still own what’s left of the cookbook bound together with a rubber band because it has so many memories for me. I too have taken a similar journey through all the authors and now own over 40 vegan cookbooks although I zealously copy ones from the web daily.Looking forward to sharing new recipes with you,although I do not follow a gluten free diet.

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14 moonwatcher November 1, 2012 at 8:43 am

Lani,

So cool that you still have yours–I do too; that’s it in the photo. It’s traveled all this way with me. Thanks for sharing some of your cookbook journey.

Maria

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15 Michelle@HappyHeart November 1, 2012 at 5:54 am

Amazing, insightful and inspiring story! Really fantastic to hear about your journey; truly shows the power of food in all it’s glory!

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16 moonwatcher November 1, 2012 at 8:45 am

Thank you, Michelle, and welcome–I like how you put that–”the power of food in all it’s glory”–so true!!

Maria

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17 jeanne wallace November 1, 2012 at 5:59 am

Hi Maria,
What a wonderful blog. It is fun to read and informative to boot! I downloaded several recipes to make in the next couple of days – Quinoa Cornbread, Cardamon-Raisin Rice Pudding, and the Breakfast Burrito Bake (a Sunday morning treat). While I don’t know if I could go entirely vegan, I am planning to introduce myself and Al to many of these recipes. Thanks Maria. Jeanne

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18 moonwatcher November 1, 2012 at 8:47 am

Hi Jeanne,

You are welcome! So happy you are joinng us joining us!! Thanks for the kind words about the blog. I look forward to hearing how you and Al like testing these recipes out.

Maria

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19 Kathy November 1, 2012 at 6:17 am

I was about 10 when I bought my first cookbook, Sunday’s at the Moosewood, and I made peasant potatoes for my family one Thanksgiving. I followed that recipe to the letter but somehow ended up putting in to much mace. They came out flavored so strongly with it and were not very good. Of course my brother and sisters made fun of me to no end but I persevered and kept cooking. Thanks for sharing, I hadn’t thought of that memory in a long time.

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20 moonwatcher November 1, 2012 at 8:49 am

Hi Kathy,

Welcome! And thanks so much for sharing your own memory of attempting a recipe as a little girl. I really appreciated reading that.

Maria

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21 Valorie November 1, 2012 at 10:12 am

Maria,

I’m so glad to read a blog by another MSer who’s traveled many of the same paths I have and am! Your words are very encouraging. Thank you and God bless!

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22 moonwatcher November 1, 2012 at 11:54 am

You’re welcome, Valorie, and God bless YOU, too. It’s great to know you’re out there following along.

Maria

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23 Diana November 1, 2012 at 10:20 am

I had a Betty Crocker cook set that I loved (it came with a chocolate cake mix) and I used to clip recipes out of American Girl and paste them on index cards and put them in a file box under appropriate categories. The box rested in my Hope Chest. I look forward to reading your other blogs, Maria. Thanks for this much so far.

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24 moonwatcher November 1, 2012 at 11:57 am

Hi Diana,

Oh my goodness, American Girl!! I used to get that too. :) Sure brings back memories. Thank you for sharing this. Glad to have you along!

Maria

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25 Donna McFarland November 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm

So happy to find your blog Maria! I’ve been doing the Swank diet for twenty four years. As his patient, for ten…I knew I’d found the way to controlling this disease. RECENTLY found that I need to seriously cut gluten. WOW…now this, is challenging! Your blog came to me at just the right time…i sooooo look forward to learning more from you! If I can ever add clarity to your Swank diet cache’ of knowledge, please don’t hesitate to email me!

Best to you! Donna

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26 moonwatcher November 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Welcome, Donna! I am honored to have you follow along and chime in with your own years of experience with Dr. Swank and the Swank Diet. I will be interspersing my own little victories and epiphanies with food tips and gluten free good loves. So I hope I can be of help to you that way in future posts. You can do it! Here is a link to Gluten Free Goddess’s “How To Go Gluten Free” post:

http://glutenfreegoddess.blogspot.com/p/how-to-go-g-free.html

all the best back to you,

Maria

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27 Laloofah November 6, 2012 at 7:32 am

Maria,
I followed Susan V’s blog to yours, and am glad I did. I’m amazed how very similar our paths are! I was diagnosed with MS 18 years ago this month. I, too, changed my diet beginning with learning about the Swank MS diet in 1995 and later about Dr. McDougall (finally attending his 10-Day Live-in Program five years ago). Becoming vegan in 2000 (along with my husband) was a great fit for me, given my love of animals and the planet. I take no drugs, have done very well since going vegan and have been completely symptom-free since “going McDougall,” and am so glad you are sharing this information with others through your blog! I find that even after all this time, there’s always more to learn – and more than a lifetime of delicious recipes to try! So I’m a happy new follower of your blog. Thank you to you and to Susan for all that you do and share!

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28 moonwatcher November 6, 2012 at 7:59 am

Welcome, Laloofah! I am honored to read of your own similar experience and so glad you are joining me. I believe we need to get the word out about how much this can help. Thank you for adding your own voice of encouraging experience by commenting here. It’ lovsely to connect with others on the same path.

Maria

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29 kally November 19, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I am leaning towards becoming Swank friendly vegan. What changes did you make? Flax oil, etc. How did you handle please.

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30 moonwatcher November 19, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Hi kally,

I do not use oil at all, even flax oil. My approach is closer to that of Dr. McDougall or Dr. Esselstyn. I do take 1 tablespoon of ground flax a day, usually a teaspoon at a time, on each of my meals. You can read a little bit more about this in my post “Finding My Way to Straight Up Food.” I also elaborated in answers to comments for that post. Beyond that, if I have any seeds or nuts, I use Dr. Swank’s guidelines for how many nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, etc. translate into grams of fat, so I never go over 20 grams. Usually I am far below that. You can find a quick list of those measurements if you scroll down this page on the Swank site. This seems to work for me.

I hope to get a FAQ page up since so many people are interested in how I handle this. Maybe after Thanksgiving!

Maria

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31 moonwatcher November 19, 2012 at 6:51 pm

hi kally,

Oh dear I just lost my answer to you! So here goes again. I do not use any oils, including flax oil. My approach is closer to that of Dr. McDougall and Dr. Esselstyn. As I mentioned in the post, my baseline of added nuts and seeds is 1 tablespoon of ground flax a day. When I have additional nuts and seeds or avocado or olive, I count them as Dr. Swank would, so as to be sure not to go over 20 grams. Here is a link to the page that has those measurements on it if you scroll down.

http://www.swankmsdiet.org/About%20The%20Diet

This seems to work for me. I think I also elaborated on this in my answers to other comments on this post, so I hope you find those answers and the post itself helpful in making a decision that’s right for you.

Maria

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32 Will Miller December 19, 2013 at 10:31 am

Ah, a joy of a website, helpful hints and references.
I learned cooking at my Mom’s side as a pre-schooler and given the advice to be careful of the instructions of recipes too.
Of course it was tempered by Mom’s advice that the recipe is a guide and she often deviated or re-wrote a recipe to her taste. Alas, I never developed the level of her skill and rely on the more prolific cooks to do the experimenting with the exception that I will omit or substitute as the mood suits me when I know a listed ingredient will not enhance the flavor or texture.

And ketchup has always been my ‘friend’ and I thank you for that addition.

Wishing you well and happiness.

Will

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33 moonwatcher December 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Thanks Will, and welcome to my blog! I’m glad you enjoyed this entry because I really enjoyed writing it. Glad you found if helpful, and thanks for sharing some of your own memories learning to cook with a recipe as a guide from your own mother. Well wishes and happiness back to you.

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