Turn Over A New Leaf

The outdoor farmer’s market in our hometown has officially opened for the season. Last fall, I pledged to turn over a new leaf this year and buy our vegetables and plants, along with soaps and other organic products, from local farmers whenever possible.  The time has come to make good on that promise. 

Herein lies the challenge: for me, venturing into town on Saturday morning has typically been reserved for parades, other special events, or picking up a birthday cake from Morgan’s Bakery. Until now, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve darkened the sidewalk during farmer’s market. Despite its central location inNorrisPark, a charming and unique venue, the lure wasn’t enough. After all, I could get the same items at our locally-owned grocery store during the week, right?  Why bother with a special trip downtown just to buy lettuce and tomatoes? 

Two good reasons: first, farmers invest their time, energy, and money to create products intended for our consumption, and they do it well. My green thumb extends only as far as the perfect combination of climate, quality seeds, and daily maintenance will allow.  Second, when we buy local products, we’re supporting our neighbors and friends. Enough said. 

But back to the lettuce and tomatoes, and the issue of Saturday morning: garden variety iceberg lettuce pales beside the greens offered by our local vendors, and rightfully so. Kale, spinach, turnip greens, and bok choy hold more nutritional value and taste better. When tomatoes are in season, the same holds true.  

So this week, for the first time, watercress will grace our dinner table, in salads, sandwiches, and maybe even soup. If you’re a seasoned farmer’s market patron, and by implication a healthy eater as well, you’re probably not impressed yet. So visualize, if you will, this salad bowl at our house from a year ago: green outer leaves of iceberg lettuce, tomato wedges, and sliced cucumber. Baby carrots, radishes, or green pepper with sliced boiled eggs meant the culinary muse had entered the kitchen and we were having Cobb salad with Waverly wafers. Break out the ranch dressing and balsamic vinegar, and call it a healthy meal.   

Culinary motivation on my part has never been a point of pride, but I’m certainly not alone. According to a 2009 report by thePewResearchCenter, nearly half the American work force is made up of women, and 75% of American mothers work outside the home.  While among their ranks, I experienced firsthand the low priority of meal preparation at the end of a long day. It’s just too easy to serve quick, simple meals comprised of frozen or processed foods; it’s even easier to swing into a fast food drive-through on the way home. Guilty and guilty, now let’s move on…  

I blame this oblivion onAmerica’s pervasive twin evils, lack of awareness coupled with apathy. When we don’t fully comprehend the impact on our bodies of the food we’re eating, we can’t see the benefit of alternatives. Metaphorically speaking, it’s easy to stick index fingers in both ears, wave the hands, and sing, “Lalalalala….” until all the food is gone. You know what I’m talking about. 

So why turn over a new leaf? 

For me, it came in stages. First, I retired from the local university after forty years in the work force and had more time to plan meals. I would like to claim an upswing in the quality of our home cooked food, but the only significant change in the kitchen during the first year was a fresh coat of paint on the cabinets.   

Then last fall, my husband suffered his second heart attack (discussed in my blog, “Heart Attack Rule of Seven”).  During his recovery, Dan enrolled in a three-month cardiovascular rehabilitation program atTahlequahCityHospital, where we met a clinical nutritionist, James Newman, who would challenge how we thought about food. 

Until then, I regarded food as a means for staving off hunger, providing nutrition (especially protein), and a means to socialize with friends. At our first meeting, Newman presented persuasive evidence that food is medicine. He posed the million dollar question: were we willing to make radical changes in our diet that might control…maybe even reverse…the coronary heart disease that caused the blockages that led to my husband’s heart attack? The answer was easy; there’s no question about making dietary changes when it involves the health of someone you love. And I knew that whatever food I prepared and put on the table, my husband would eat. 

The next step was trading hamburgers and pizza for portobello mushroom steaks and quinoa. It may sound difficult, but Newman encouraged us to think in terms of a lifestyle change rather than dieting. He referred us to the book by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn of the Cleveland Clinic, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” which now sits dog-eared and stained from frequent use on my kitchen counter. I never knew how many plant-based and grain options there are in the world. Newman also suggested we “sample the rainbow” in our local produce department. With only two people to prepare for, we can try different things in small quantities. Our refrigerator shelves are lined with greens in a variety of shades and shapes, potatoes in every color, cauliflower, broccoli, bok choy, chard, squash, and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Seasonings include fresh herbs from our garden and a variety of vinegars and Braggs Liquid Aminos, a lower-sodium alternative to soy sauce.  By the way, did you know turnip greens come alive with a spritz of rice vinegar? 

Recently, I saw a clip from a national late night show in which Bill Clinton credited the Esselstyn plan with restoring his well-being after a heart attack and surgery last year. Closer to home, Newman has shed more than 250 pounds and will tell you that his cholesterol level is down to an impressive 107.  In fact, Newman’s success is noted in several online journals, where he is recognized as an authority on healthy eating.

Yes, this has the appearance of a vegan lifestyle, and no, we are not strict adherents; we stick with the plan about 80 percent of the time, giving in to the temptation of fish, a juicy T-bone steak or an ice cream sundae now and then. I don’t anticipate we will ever completely forego animal products, but the important thing is to stay on track. 

One thing we discovered early on: eating a plant-based and grain diet means what we consume is more filling and holds higher nutritional value, thus we eat less. Combined with exercise, we’ve each lost a few pounds (my husband more so than I) and feel better overall. That’s motivation enough to stick with the plan. 

So, strolling through the Saturday morning farmers market has become an adventure, a weekly foray into trying new foods, supporting local farmers, and visiting with friends and neighbors. And you’ll still find me patronizing the produce aisle at our hometown market, scoping out the leafy greens and shopping the rainbow. Meanwhile, think I’ll whip up some watercress soup. 

Nancy M. Garber

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