Interview with Cynthia Lair

Air date: December 20, 2016

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Cynthia Lair, author of a wonderful cookbook called Feeding the Whole Family and another cookbook, Feeding the Young Athlete, as well as the host of very funny online cooking shows, Cookus Interruptus. And Cynthia is a professor and culinary program founder at Bastyr University, certainly one of the most prestigious nutrition schools in the country. Welcome, Cynthia!

CYNTHIA LAIR: Thank you so much.

TM: You know, I have to say, I want our listeners to know that Cookus Interruptus, which is your online cooking show, is a collection of 175 videos that were actually taken right in your home, weren’t they, Cynthia?

CL: Well, they were actually not in my home. Yay! Because I don’t have a big enough home kitchen to have lighting and tech people and cameras and such. And many people think that the people that play my family in the show are actually my family.

TM: I did, I was one of them.

CL: They’re actually… One of the other things that I do in my life is improvisational comedy, and the people that play my husband and daughter are part of an improvisational comedy group that I’ve been with for 16 years.

TM: Well, Cynthia, I am so impressed with the range of talents that you have. And in fact, I did read that you were into theater. And what a fantastic combination: cooking, nutrition, and theater. That must keep you pretty busy. And tell me, how do you see all those things sort of relating?

CL: Well, my acting skills have been primary in being able to teach a good class. So I feel that as a professor, that that helps me maybe more than anything, certainly more than studying information, is being able to relay the information in an entertaining way. And of course, studying how to be an improvisational actress also keeps you on your toes so you can change up. You don’t have to just do the same dry lecture over and over. You’re always bouncing around.

TM: Boy, those lucky students! I have a feeling that, you know, our listeners out there who went to college know what it’s like to sort of fall asleep during a lecture. I’m just curious, what happened first? Were you into theater first, or how did this all come together? Or were you in nutrition first?

CL: Yes, I was in theater first. That was what I did my undergraduate degree in. And then I lived in New York City for over a dozen years and was a working actress, which is something anyone, that’s a prideful thing, I guess. And I was doing television commercials, and I decided I wanted to go back to school and study nutrition. So I actually paid for my nutrition interest via the money I earned as an actress, which is a little bit backwards, but kind of fun.

TM: (Laughing) Yeah, I think so! And nutrition, and you chose Bastyr in Washington State. Isn’t that like just south of Seattle?

CL: Yes, it is. I didn’t study at Bastyr, I studied in New York, but I moved to Seattle after my child was born and then began teaching at Bastyr.

TM: You know, I had an interesting discussion with a number of different nutritionists who always claimed that part of the nutrition was, it was only about from the plate to the mouth. That was the most important thing about nutrition. Here you’re adding another dimension in saying that it’s not just about nutrition. It’s also about culinary arts, which I’m assuming is about taste and flavors and combinations of things. Say how you came about to be the founder of putting those two things together.

CL: Yes. Well, again, I seem to back into things rather than having it out in front of me as a goal. But the university has a thriving program in nutrition with several, I think five or six, degree programs within it. And at some point, my boss wanted to explore the idea of doing a culinary arts degree combined with nutrition. And we outlined the program and got it all set up. I was kind of like his right-hand man. I took notes and I had all of the courses in the program outlined and had begun helping to hire teachers to teach some of them because we like to put them out there and see if they’re working. And then he left the university! And the university decided to go ahead and make this a degree program, and I was the only person that knew what it was all about, so I became in charge of it! So I was the director of the program for six years, and then the end of this year I sort of stepped back so I could pursue some other things. And I just, now, teach a course or two in the program, but I don’t run it anymore. And it’s a very wonderful curriculum I think anyone would want to take, because we do culinary skills 1, 2, and 3, but we also do therapeutic whole-foods cooking, which addresses various diets and whether they, what’s the true pro and con of each of the so-called healthful diets. And then applying what foods or what kind of shifts could you make if you had diabetes or if you had heart disease or whatever.

TM: Can I like interpret that as basically, nutritionally speaking, if you have an issue like, for example, gluten-free or gluten intolerance or celiac, or if you are diabetic or something like that, that you can look at different recipes of food that you really like and learn to cook them for what you need.

CL: Well, perhaps, although I have to say that over the years that I have been at Bastyr, and I’ve been there 22 years, I very slowly but surely came to realize that restrictive diets don’t tend to pan out. And so we’re always trying to encourage our students to open their minds and not be so closed off, and not be so black-and-white about their thinking.

TM: What do you mean by “restrictive diets don’t pan out”? They’re too hard to follow, is that it? Or they’re not healthy enough?

CL: No, they tend to… Let’s say you want to be a paleo, okay? And you cut out all grains and beans and all dairy, and there’s a number of other foods. And then you eat, in that diet, you would be eating a lot of meat and a lot of vegetables. And it’s true that you might have some weight loss or, you know, some benefit in the short term. But in the long run, that’s not really a sustainable diet on a number of levels—for the planet, for the animals, for the body, et cetera, et cetera. So what I call it in class is “All nations are welcome,” meaning if you’re paleo, gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free, whatever, you’re welcome in the class, but we’re not going to tailor the class for you. We’re just going to work with whole foods that are lovely, that the earth produces. We’re going to talk about how you can buy the best-quality foods and prepare them, rather than trying to deal with everybody’s personal issues. Does that makes sense?

TM: Yes, it totally does. So what I think you’re doing is you’re saying, this is a class that you’re going to learn about nutrition, but it sounds like you’re also going to learn how to cook. And you might learn how to cook from different kinds of cuisines all over the world.

CL: Yes, that’s more the focus, is flavor and cuisines all over the world, and understanding how to cut up a chicken even if you’re deciding to be a vegan.

TM: Oh dear!

CL: You know, just embracing the whole world of cooking, rather than focusing on what you believe is the way to eat. Because we’re trying to open up the mind rather than categorizing food as “this is bad” and “this is good.” Just being more conscious of where the food came from, how it was produced, and then making your decisions more based on that than some sort of black-and-white thinking. And to that end, the Introduction in the new edition of Feeding the Whole Family is called “Embracing the Gray,” because I feel so strongly that we have gotten ourselves in these nutrition camps. So the vegans think they’re right, and the paleos think they’re right, and the gluten-frees think that they’re right. And there’s really, that kind of thinking, of categorizing and saying, “I’m right and everybody else is wrong,” is not helping us as a species to evolve.

TM: What I like about what you’re saying is that it’s not just about “you should just eat these things.” It’s about diversity, that nutrition and fun with food is also about diversity.

CL: And joy! What happened to that? I mean, we’re just all so focused on health and good and bad, and the good and bad keep changing. I know that you and I are of an age, I think, that we’ve seen these trends come and go. I mean, we were, in the 1970s, we were talking about how bad carbohydrates were, because the Atkins Diet was very big then. And then in the ’80s we were talking about how bad meat was and eggs were, and butter. And then in the ’90s it was all fats have to go. And then we started over again in the twenty-first century with bashing carbohydrates again. And all that that kind of thinking does is sell product. It doesn’t increase health.

TM: Well, it surely hasn’t increased health in America. It was very, very sad to read that one of the problems with the Affordable Care Act was they completely underestimated just how unhealthy Americans were. That was shocking. We know that obesity is on the rise, that diabetes and a host of other things. That they underestimated so significantly just how unhealthy Americans are should be very alarming.

CL: It is alarming, and… Well, and I don’t want to go here at all, but you know, it all goes back to politics, too, in that we don’t support, we don’t subsidize healthy food. We subsidize food that will make you sick. And that’s a real problem. So it’s not just about education.

TM: I want to actually go back to joy though. I think it’s a good time—it’s the holidays. And you know, I really love the idea that you’re taking nutrition and putting it with the fun of cooking. And it kind of reminds me of the wonderful TEDx talk that you gave, “How to Cut an Onion.”

CL: Oh, thank you!

TM: I just enjoyed that so much. How different it was than I expected, because of course, you know, I immediately said to myself, “Well, I know how to cut an onion, so what is that about?” But really, I think it was a lot of how we can take cooking, and it isn’t just about—

CL: Using your body as a trash can.

TM: Yes, using your body as a trash can! Now, I’m not totally against empty-calorie food. I think that that’s just fine. I think what you were saying is let’s not demonize food. Let’s just think about it more sensibly or in a diverse way. But the idea of being present with our food—what an interesting way to think about cooking and eating. Kind of almost like a meditation, you know, with your food. But definitely I think that you made a very good point that if you’re more intentional when you’re cooking, that you’re being present, that you’re going to cook something much more delicious.

CL: Yes, you are! Yeah, it’s going to taste better and it’s probably also going to be better for you, if that’s your thing. But yes, you know, it’s so funny that we—and I do this too, you know—we go take yoga class in order to meditate and try to be in the present moment, and there’s a million opportunities every day to do that that don’t require getting in your car and driving to a class. And one of the best ways is food because it’s got that incredible, let’s say, crutch isn’t the right word, but because the food’s so pretty, and so it naturally calls your attention. You know, a TV dinner, I’m not going to like go, “Wow!” But just cutting up an apple, I can marvel at the color of the skin and the sweetness of the taste. When you’re eating food that comes from nature, there’s this immediate relationship that can happen if you take the time to stay in the moment.

TM: Well, if you are just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Cynthia Lair, who is a cookbook author, an online cooking show host, and a professor and culinary program founder at Bastyr University. Today we’re talking about our relationship with food and the importance of being present when we’re cooking.

CL: Yay!

TM: Well, I really love that idea. And I really was also taken, in your TEDx talk, about how you said our emotions are part of our food too, in while we’re cooking it. When we love something, when we have joy, that goes into the food too. And you know, I don’t think we think about that very much, but I was very taken with that as a concept, almost a lifestyle idea of just doing something with so much intention and love.

CL: Yes. Oh, thank you. Yes, doing that in class every quarter, where I had them cook in silence and actually gave them instructions about trying to just stay with their breath and stay with the food, as opposed to letting their mind ramble around in the past or the future, and it was my privilege to watch the students do that every quarter and see that the station that had the twitchy, this-is-irritating-me, eyes darting around, that their polenta didn’t taste as good as the ones who looked blissed out.

TM: Oh ho, real research here!

CL: Yeah, definitely. So I would just say that we’re going to cook in silence today, and gave them some instructions about how to kind of clear your mind and try to stay present, and then let them have their own experience with it. And you know, really, it goes back to what we were talking about before, which is that cooking is an opportunity for so many things. You know, to be conscious of where your food came from is really to get out of our typical narcissistic bubble and think about the repercussions of each individual’s life on the earth. And then also, if you focus on just doing that task, you get this benefit of mindfulness. And then you also get the benefit that the food tastes better! So it’s just I can’t see anything, any downsides on being present and conscious about the food that you prepare.

TM: I love your cookbook. I’m just very enchanted with it. And what a lot of joy is in it! The photographs are lovely, the recipes seem very accessible. And was this the fourth edition? Is that what I read?

CL: Yes, it’s the fourth edition. Isn’t that just crazy?

TM: Well, I can see why. It’s got so many wonderful recipes in it. The idea that we are trying to do recipes for a whole family—what made you think about that when you were writing this book, or when you first wrote it, Feeding the Whole Family?

CL: Well, I was, when I first started writing this book, I was a new mother, and I just felt that it was absolutely silly to buy food in a jar that didn’t have any flavor whatsoever and give it to my child. I was just like, why can’t she eat something that tastes really good? And then as I studied more about it I realized that those first foods and how we feed young babies and children is really training them, training their taste buds. So if we give them bland, dull, jarred, commercial food, that’s what we’re training them to want. And then we can’t be surprised when they’re four and all they’ll eat are plain rice or chicken nuggets or something, because we’ve trained them that they get special meals that are bland, processed foods. That’s what we trained them to do. So this is like, well, if we’re going to change the system of family eating, we’ve got to start at the very beginning with what we feed the babies. We’ve got to start there and teach them that we all eat the same food, because that’s so unifying, and that the food that Mom and Dad eat is perfectly acceptable with a little mashing up or something for babies.

TM: So you must have had one of those cute little Happy Baby Food Grinders. And that was something that we did in the ’60s and ’70s: we would take our little Happy Baby Food Grinder out and grind up our food that we were eating, for our kids. And it was great. You know, the other thing that I loved about your cookbook was that you were talking about, in your classes, you know, you like all countries. It has that diversity. Sticky Szechuan Tempeh, for example, certainly has Asian flavors. It has Middle Eastern flavors in it, and yet still using common ingredients that we have. So how did you adopt all these different loves of different countries and their food?

CL: I think one at a time, actually. You know, I’m just drawn to food cultures that have strong, definitive flavor, that it tastes good. And so, you know, it would just kind of happen one at a time. I’d be like, “I love going out for Indian food—certainly I could make this, couldn’t I?” And then I would just spend a year or two trying to figure out what are the flavor combinations, how can I make this, and how in a really simple way? And then I’d move on, and “Well, I love Asian food… Well, I love Thai food… I love Mexican food...” And so I would just build up my repertoire one bit at a time. And I found that the international flavors and foods lent themselves easier to preparing a healthy meal. For example, a lot of other cultures have a kind of carbohydrate base and then some sort of vegetable and protein dish in the middle, and then some kind of sauce or condiment on top, that kind of three-layered idea. And it’s an inexpensive way to eat. So if I put a layer of brown rice down, and then I make a lentil-cauliflower curry, and then I top it with a cucumber relish or something, I’ve not only created something really flavorful but it’s also economical, and it’s nutritious.

TM: And it’s beautiful.

CL: Yeah! We like that too!

TM: I’m looking now at the Thai Fresh Vegetable Rolls. And for our listeners, the thing, and those with children, what you’ll love about this book is at the bottom of almost every recipe it gives tips for, if you’re going to feed this to your 10-month or older baby or children, what you might do to modify the recipe or modify the presentation. And I think that is terrific, because sometimes you wonder, “Wow, I really want to make this, but will my kids eat it?” And I love the fact that you’re saying, “And for your children, here’s what you could do with this recipe.” And so that is so thoughtful. And for those of you who don’t know how to cut up a whole chicken, you can learn how to do that in this book too. However, I will say your book is predominantly a vegetarian book, isn’t it? It’s got some meat in it, but I’m seeing meat more at the side than at the center of a lot of these recipes. Could you comment on that? Am I perceiving that correctly?

CL: Well, the entrée chapter of the book is actually divided into vegetarian options and options with animal protein. And there’s actually a little story in the beginning where I quote a song from Oklahoma, “The farmer and the cowman should be friends.” Because I’m trying to get people to understand that you’re not better if you do eat meat or if you don’t eat meat—that both are fine options. But there is a chart toward the beginning of the book that kind of outlines how to eat, and the way it fits this book. And I do have meat as a side dish rather than a main entrée. And the reason for that is, you know, pretty much it’s showing that we need to eat more fruits and vegetables and vegetarian-type options for health, but also, if you’re going to buy really high-quality meat, which I certainly recommend, you’re going to pay a lot for it. I’m going to pay a lot of money to go to the farmers’ market and buy some grass-fed beef or free-range chicken. So, as a person with a, you know, a middle-class person, let’s say, I’m going to be more judicious about how much of that I serve. So I would say that I love buying really good meat from local producers and using it, but I use it very conservatively.

TM: You know, Cynthia, I have to laugh at your map for whole-foods eating. It doesn’t look at all like a pyramid.

CL: No.

TM: Once again, Cynthia, thank you so much. And for our listeners, Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair is a lovely book. I’m assuming, Cynthia, that our listeners can get it at their favorite bookstore.

CL: Yes, and online as well.

TM: And then some of you might like to tune in to Cookus Interruptus, and/or check the TEDx talk “How to Cut an Onion.”

CL: Yeah, thank you so much for noticing that.

TM: Thank you so much, Cynthia. It’s a delight to be talking with you, and I can hardly wait to try some of these recipes.

CL: Thank you, Theresa.

Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.

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