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.
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.