Interview With Nathalie Thandiwe, Author of “The Yummi Cookbook: Delicious, Healthy, Affordable Meals without Meat, Dairy, Wheat or Soy & Nut Free!”
I welcome the opportunity to do written interviews with Black women authors about their books. This interview is with Nathalie Thandiwe, author of The Yummi Cookbook: Delicious, Healthy, Affordable Meals without Meat, Dairy, Wheat or Soy & Nut Free!
Khadija Speaking: Nathalie, before I say anything else, let me thank you for graciously taking the time to respond to these questions. As I warned you when we first discussed the idea via email, not all of the questions will be “softball” ones. There will be at least one challenging, “hardball” question—the sort of things that I always wonder about when I read books dealing with certain topics. Let’s start with some basic questions.
Question: What made you decide to write a cookbook?
Answer: I’m an herbalist by training. Herbs and supplements are wonderful, but food is your first medicine. Many of us eat at least three times a day and in a much greater volume than any herb, supplement or drug we might take. As an herbalist, I worked with clients on their diets, knowing that if you choose foods that promote health and prevent disease, you have a sustainable way to create health. Research indicates that plant based diets in which the majority of calories come from plant (vs. animal) sources appear to have the capacity to prevent and even reverse disease.
Even once clients understood the connection between eating and health, most found it difficult to make lasting healthy dietary changes. They thought healthy food tasted terrible. When I would demo my cooking or give them samples they would always say something like, well, if my food tasted like that, I’d eat healthy all the time too. I shifted from consultations to writing books to share helpful self health information with more people. I started with the Yummi Cookbook because so many people don’t really believe that healthy can be delicious everyday, every meal from our own kitchens. Our eating habits have gotten really damaging in the United States, and we’re passing them on to our children. We now see diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases in very young children. We can turn around this dietary health crisis starting with ourselves, our families and those around us who are also interested.
In addition, food allergies are on the rise and diagnoses of conditions like autism and ADD/ADHD, speech and developmental delays are increasing in children. Interestingly one of the dietary approaches that many physicians and families report being helpful in alleviating and sometimes eliminating the symptoms associated with these disorders is a diet free of dairy, wheat, soy and other allergens.
Yummi can help people learn how to cook food that is “Delicious, Healthy and Affordable” and free of major allergens.
On a personal note, in my family we have issues ranging from gluten and soy intolerance, as well as dietary preferences including vegan and omnivore. I had developed a style of cooking to accommodate all of this with really tasty, healthy, filling food that meat-eaters can be happy with. I was sure that others would find this helpful as well.
Question: How long did this project take from idea to publication?
Answer: The Cookbook took about 6 months from start to finish and that included documenting the recipes I cook and making a companion demo DVD. I cook improvisationally- not from recipes or with specific measurements, so I had to get the food out of my head and our plates and on to the page. That was kind of challenging- cooking is like art or jazz for me- I get a muse, maybe something I’ve eaten and know could taste even better so I “make it over” using my culinary senses to create a recipe.
Question: Did you look to other cookbooks for inspiration?
Answer: Kind of, but reverse inspiration. I find cookbooks really frustrating– I have a a high-flavor palate and I expect food to be fabulous, as in delicious. Many cookbooks are filled with tons of recipes but a lot of the recipes are just ok. Given this, I find cookbooks most useful for getting recipe ideas, skimming the ingredients and then putting it back on the shelf and just doing my own thing from there.
I wanted to give people a cookbook in which if they follow the recipes faithfully they get delicious meals. I took the approach of quality over quantity for the Yummi Cookbook and every recipe delivering high value in terms of adding to your ‘Delicious, Healthy, Affordable” plant based meal repertoire.
I also wanted to give people a cookbook that would train them in strategies for eating healthy on a budget and the methods for cooking various types of foods so they could not only master these recipes but have the info they need to improv or create other healthy recipes of their own. Hence the 101 Guides including Grains 101, Beans 101 & Spice 101, which some readers have described as an easy crash course in how to cook the basics. The Spice 101 Guide is great for learning how to recreate certain flavors and cuisines you may have at restaurants but are not sure how to reproduce them on your own.
The recipes are organized so that a more creative cook can look at the format and easily figure out how to improvise changes to the recipe or create a new dish using the flavor building and steps/technique.
I actually found some inspiration in the movie Julia & Julia about a young woman who cooks all of the recipes of Julia Child’s The Joy of Cooking and blogs about the process. I watched it at a moment of utter “omg…what have I taken on” project overwhelm. And I saw that both Julia Child and Julia the movie character had the exact same sort of moments in the midst of their respective creations. It was an affirmation of sorts from the universe- as if to say, yes love, this feeling is part of the process and look these other women who took on and succeeded in such endeavors had this feeling too- you are on your way!
Khadija Speaking: I notice that, in your cookbook, you repeatedly emphasize strategies for food affordability (such as preparing meals from scratch, getting produce from farmer’s markets, and from food co-ops).
Question: What do you say to the audience members who feel that they have no practical ways of accessing such things?
Answer: Great question! Let’s assume you’re working with the neighborhood bodega/corner store. Bodegas usually have dried rice and beans, frozen vegetables, tomato sauce, spices, frozen fruit, bananas, onions, garlic and maybe even a fresh vegetable or two. You can actually make some tasty and healthy meals with that- soups, burritos, chili, rice, green veggies and beans platters, smoothies, etc.
But I want to examine this issue of no access. I’ve noticed that many of the same neighborhoods that are called “food deserts” for lack of fresh food grocery purveyors also have none of the clothing and electronic goods retailers found in malls and well developed shopping areas. Yet the residents somehow find the name brand sneakers, clothes, accessories, electronic gadgets, etc. of the outlets that refuse to open stores in their neighborhoods. Clearly retailer abandonment has not stopped people from acquiring other goods they desire. People will have to take the same approach with healthy food and goods-where there’s a will and a demand, there’s a way. The first step is to asset map–find out where the closest sources of healthy, affordable foods are–farmer’s markets, food coops and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture)–look online or ask around. Ask if they offer any satellite services near you or on your commute, such as drop off/pick up sites or reselling via other locations near you. If they don’t, ask them to do so. If they won’t, collaborate with others in your area to get the foods you need from the most convenient location(s). Assume no one is coming to save you and get busy saving yourself and your family and work with others you meet already on the same journey.
Khadija Speaking: In your book, you explain that the Yummi Cookbook meals are made without meat, dairy, wheat, soy or nuts. And that the Yummi Cookbook’s meals are made from vegetables, beans, grains, seeds, spices, and oils. Here’s what makes me nervous about vegetarian and vegan nutritional practices: Too often, there are alarming parallels to religious fundamentalism in how many self-professed vegetarians and vegans approach those diets. As the blog host of the paleo diet blog, Free The Animal, says in his post The Vegetarian Menace,
And then there’s the enviro-crap, which is just original-sin religion in disguise. You’re a guilty sinner (destroying the planet), you must repent (eat unfulfilling food). and atone (sacrifice your values and desires to the diktats of “authorities”). Same con, different day.
Khadija Speaking: He also raises the concerns I have about the numbers of infant and child deaths that are caused by vegetarian and vegan zealotry. As he points out in the same blog post, when you google the phrase “vegan baby deaths” you get page after page of news stories of vegan parents inflicting malnutrition and death on their children with what these parents claim are vegetarian and vegan diets.
Question: How are the Yummi Cookbook’s meals different from the dietary practices that allegedly led to the deaths of various vegan and vegetarian parents’ children?
Answer: I’m going to address the preamble to your question as well. I find it suspect when people are super emotionally charged or fundamentalist about “THE Right Way to Eat” no matter what their position is–wether they are advocating for meat eating or veganism. It’s a privilege to be able to even contemplate how and what we eat in terms of choices- many people on the planet simply do not have that luxury.
In reality the U.S. factory farming practices require vast mounts of resources–water, topsoil and fossil fuels; it also produces environmentally contaminating waste, and disease promoting food products. That is simply an unsustainable model for feeding ourselves. If we look to earlier indigenous cultures or even a couple of generations back to our great grandparents for more sustainable food production models, at the end of the day it boils down to eating lower on the food chain–more plants, smaller game and less meat for the majority of our sustenance.
When I would visit one of my grandmothers for the day when I was a girl, eventually a family member would ask If I was hungry; if I answered yes, I had to stay put several more hours while a relative snatched up a chicken from underfoot, broke its neck, defeathered, butchered and stewed it. When you deal with the reality of that “you want it then you raise it and pick it/kill it to eat” model, as compared to the McEverything I McWant McNow model, you understand with a quickness that this devouring of all in sight as if it’s an infinite resource wether it’s meat or fossil fuels will hit a wall and all of us relying on it will hit that wall with it.
I was raised eating meat and am a plant-based omnivore; I have also been a vegetarian and a vegan–I began experimenting with meatless eating in my childhood. My diet is 90% or more plants at this point in my life.
I don’t think it’s really about veganism, it’s about finding a way to eat as healthily and sustainably as we can. I would argue that the soy-based model of veganism is also problematic–with cash crop soy production displacing forests and indigenous crops, the genetic engineering of soy, the allergenic and hormonally reactive aspects of soy–just some of the obvious conundrums of the “Soy is THE Answer” chorus.
The pendulum has swung so far in one direction that balance will inevitably involve changing how we cultivate our food, and for many people eating less meat, with high and rising meat prices forcing the adjustment for some.
As far as parents malnourishing their kids, honestly, I see that across the spectrum from meat eaters to vegans. Most parents, like the rest of us, don’t get any training in nutrition or an education in public interest health and food policy. I see meat and dairy eating parents making complaints such as their kids have had painful ear infections since infancy, tubes, surgeries, allergies, asthma, sinus infections etc. When other parents and physicians point out that dairy is often a problem for children with these health issues, in reality only a fraction of these parents will respond by even testing a dairy elimination diet. Are they child abusers? The same goes for overweight, insulin resistant and diabetic children and their parents. These are widespread problems directly linked to diet and much more statistically significant that vegan-triggered wasting of children. People who allow children to waste or die from malnourishment have mental problems. It’s really not about the particular diet they try to hide behind or use. It’s important that we try to remain rational and calm when we are confronted with different eating philosophies and practices and really pay attention to what are the most prevalent sources of harm when it comes to diet, rather than witch hunt people based on exceptions, letting corporate interests shape the dialog and gaslight the public from behind the curtain.
Research studies indicate that children can be successfully reared on a vegan diet providing that their diet is adjusted for the reality that vegan diets can be lower in calories due to higher fiber volume, don’t provide B12, and are often low in calcium and iron. These issues can be handled with higher calorie intake if necessary and supplements or fortified foods. Interestingly, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) formally states that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” The ADA notes that a vegetarian diet is associated with lower weight, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure and rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cancer than that of nonvegetarians. The ADA also provides helpful information on what you need to do to implement a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet.
In that vein, the Yummi Cookbook advises readers to speak to their health care provider and do their research regarding their nutritional needs and make adjustments to accommodate them. Yummi Cookbook meals are free of soy and use beans and seeds for nutrient rich protein sources. Yummi recipes also use healthy fats (oils), a critical nutrient for growing bodies and brains. The many vegetables and spices in Yummi recipes are rich in phytochemicals–nutrients associated with preventing and healing disease. While Yummi recipes are nutrient-rich, the delicious meals also are a hit with young kids as well as teens!
Question: You mention this in the book, but could you share for the audience some of the tips you give for busy people who want to eat well at home, but don’t have a lot of time for food preparation?
Answer: Yes! You have two primary strategies for time saving when it comes to making food- do it or delegate it. If you’re going to do it–cook food from scratch–then you can use batching and freezing to be most time-effective. Make and freeze food in batches–both staples like grains/beans and fully prepared meals like lasagnas and chilis. This means when you’re ready to prepare meals or eat you have time-saving ready to go ingredients or heat and eat meals on hand. If you’re going to delegate food preparation then you can delegate in-house or out. In-house can mean using existing household labor, like other family members or hired help to complete meal preparation steps like grocery shopping, measuring and chopping ingredients or making the whole meal. If you’re going to delegate outside of your home/help that means buying already prepared foods and meals from healthy prepared food providers. This is the most expensive strategy and potentially gives you the least amount of control over your food preparation; the trade-off is you get to preserve your time for other priorities.
A time and money saving tip to simplify cooking is to plan meals that have shared ingredients and cook fewer meals per week but larger volume per recipe so that it can provide food for a couple of dinners and lunches. I like this because it means I can cook just 2-3 meals that can be used for a whole week of lunches and dinners. I do a lot of “Yummi Remixes” or leftover make-overs, which I explain in the Cookbook. I repurpose ingredients, like lasagna ingredients might become pizza for another recipe later that week, so often people don’t realize they’re eating the same food!
Question: What do you hope the Yummi Cookbook will accomplish for those who use it?
Answer: I hope the Yummi Cookbook will help people interested in eating healthy by giving them more options for delicious meals. I also hope it will help people who have been told to adopt a diet free of wheat, dairy and/soy, expand their meal options. As I mentioned this is often part of the dietary protocol for treating developmental delays, ADD/ADHD and autism and other conditions like ear infections and asthma, and it can be overwhelming for families to implement these changes.
Question: Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to mention to the audience?
Answer: The Yummi Cookbook does include recipes for soy-free tofu substitutes, so if you are really attached to tofu, but want to “diversify” it can help with that as well!
I also want to make it clear that a healthy plant based diet is something that everyone across eating preferences can adopt and adapt–even meat eaters and low carb eaters. You can only eat so much meat; it’s plants–vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds–that offer the highest levels of nutrients, antioxidants and protective phytochemicals. A healthy meal that includes meat should still have a majority of its calories coming from plants. By choosing high-fiber, complex carbs like leafy greens as a foundation for meals, meat eaters can still keep their diets lean, low carb and plant based. The Yummi Cookbook makes that taste a lot better than it sounds!
Khadija Speaking: Again, thanks so much for taking the time to inform me as well as the readers by giving this interview! I truly appreciate it.
At the end of the day, anybody who wants abundant, healthy life is going to have to transition away from processed, “dead” foods. And move toward a way of eating that heavily incorporates natural, “living” foods such as fruits and vegetables. It’s easier to make this transition if you know how to make healthier meals that are also delicious, and The Yummi Cookbook can help you do that. I strongly recommend it!