For me, the first bout of vegetarianism began in high school. I was reading Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps; I had distributed a hundred postcards to my friends to protest baby seal slaughter, and I had marched against nuclear war and nuclear waste. In the cause of being a better person and not adding to the world’s evil, I regularly ate a boiled grain concoction—entirely sans sucre—for one or two meals a day. It looked like horse feed, as my brother commented, and tasted like—well, by the time one finished chewing it, one’s jaws were so tired it would be hard to say just what that flavor was.
For my 15th birthday, my mother bought me the Moosewood Cookbook. Moral: you don’t have to grind your way through a bowl of tree bark every day to be kind to animals.
Moral number two: Ithaca is more than an island in The Odyssey.
Priscilla Timberlake and Lewis Freedman, authors of The Great Life Cookbook, now in its second printing, have been spreading the word about plant-based diets for decades, with a unique teaching technique that goes right to the core of the matter: every Friday night for 20 years, Priscilla and Lewis have hosted an open dinner for their friends and their friends’ friends to come and try an all-plant meal.
Their bona fides date from two local vegetarian institutions that didn’t survive into the age of social media: ABC Café, a worker-owned vegetarian cooperative on Stewart Avenue, and Cabbagetown Café, a block above it on Eddy Street. Although Moosewood put Ithaca on the map for vegetarian cuisine, these two restaurants were equally loved by locals. I can still remember the revelation of Cabbagetown’s cashew chili—nutty, filling, and spicy—and the controlled chaos of ABC at dinnertime. Timberlake was a partner at the ABC Café, and Freedman was involved with Cabbagetown.
Freedman, a registered dietitian, now works with the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutritional Studies. He teaches yoga and stress management at Cornell, where Timberlake also teaches mindfulness and meditation.
On a recent Friday, we entered the enclosed porch/sun room/coat room of their house in Brooktondale to find tables set with clean, un-ironed table cloths, windows steamed by the warmth of a wood stove, and around 20 people looking for places to sit and introducing themselves to each other. We chose a spot in the corner and soon had table mates: a family with two daughters, whom we had never before laid eyes on, but who just happened to live about two blocks away from our house in Ithaca.
The night’s menu started with cream of squash soup, which can be found in the cookbook for the month of October. Dishes are cooked without oils, without gluten, and without animal products: blanched, baked, boiled, pressed, simmered, steamed, or water sautéed. “For the pressed salad,” Lewis explained, “we cut the vegetables into strips and salt them with sea salt, then press them under a plate for several hours. Then, wash the salt off; it makes a nice, crisp salad. It’s raw and very digestible.”
After the squash soup, which was “creamy,” sweet, and filling, came the main plate. In the cooking philosophy at work here, each meal and each plate is full and balanced. “Each day, eat from all parts of the plant, and every color of the rainbow,” Lewis quoted. We have yellow baked polenta; black beans and onions; greens with sunflower seed tangerine dressing; the green pressed salad; arame and root vegetables—parsnips and carrots; short grain brown rice; daikon pickle. Thus: sour, salty, pungent, sweet, and bitter—five flavor groups, so the meal tastes complete and satisfying. Leaves, seeds, roots, and fruits, and most of it local.
“We’re very lucky to have Cayuga Grains’ black beans,” said Priscilla, “from right down the road in Brooktondale.” To round out the flavors of the dishes, Priscilla commonly adds different ingredients from Asian cooking: umeboshi plum paste, sea salt, agar-agar flakes and other flavor and digestion helpers. The “Apprentice’s Guide” section of The Great Life Cookbook provides a list of ten of these uncommon ingredients, and a primer on kitchen tools, cooking styles, and such things as a beginner’s guide to sea vegetables.
Harold Shultz, who has been a regular Friday diner for years, said he eats mostly raw foods on the other days of the week. “Most people consume too much fat and protein,” said Shultz. “Even vegans.”
Said Shultz, “Both of my parents died young; my mother was 56, and my father was 60. Growing up, I had the worst diet imaginable. When my father died, I changed my diet.” Shultz recommended reading T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, which measured cancer trends and national diets. Campell, who grew up on a dairy farm, approached diet from a scientific point of view and was swayed by his own results, even though they were not what he expected. Several decades of research led to The China Study, and Campbell is now head of the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at Cornell, where Freedman works.
Campbell, it turns out, is the reason this dinner is billed “whole-foods plant-based,” rather than “vegan” or “vegetarian.” Noting the difficulty the scientific community has had in accepting the rationale for a plant-based diet, Campbell chose a more exact term. Vegans and vegetarians often base their diet on moral and ethical considerations, such as preserving the environment and not being cruel to animals. However, that doesn’t mean their diet is healthy: a vegetarian could subsist on potato chips, donuts, and ramen noodles, for instance. Campbell writes, “A Whole Foods Plant Based diet is better described as a ‘dietary lifestyle’ not a ‘diet’ because of the vast and very important interplay of food, exercise, personal philosophy and environment … a vast majority of vegetarians still use copious amounts of dairy products, sometimes also fish and eggs, while most vegans use nutritionally compromised plant-based diets high in added fat, sugar and processed foods.” (T. Colin Campbell, “Questioning the Ethics and Science of a Pure Vegan Diet,” nutritionstudies.org, Oct. 16, 2015.)
Following Campbell’s principles, Freedman and Timberlake cook the Friday dinner without oils and added fats. As gluten intolerance has become an issue for many people, they have made that change in the dinners as well. One of our neighbors across the table needs a gluten-free diet, and this meal provides her with a rare opportunity to eat out.
“It’s not only beautiful, but it’s vegan, so you can eat a lot,” said Gwen, sitting next to me, although I was full before my plate was empty. As we waited for dessert—lemon almond blackberry tart—a weekly ritual began. Priscilla carried out the first slice of the tart with a lit candle on it, and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to Bey-Ling, who was sitting at our table.
There turned out to be four more people who had just had a birthday, or were about to. One by one, we learned their names, and sang to them.
It was solemn, and fun, and calmly sweet; the renditions actually improved with each round, as the singers relaxed and enjoyed the ritual. The meal, said Priscilla, is not just about the food. Creating a sense of community, and giving good food to people, is about love. “I picked the blackberries with my own hands,” she said, smiling. “My daughter has had the Friday dinners her whole life; I feel so blessed to be able to have given her this experience.”
“It’s a spiritual practice,” our hosts admitted, as they plated the slices of tart for their guests. “It’s about giving to the community.” •
For more information on the cookbook, check the website: thegreatlifecookbook.com