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Wake Up & Chow Down: A Movie Review

Chow Down Movie Poster

Julia Grayer, co-director and co-producer of the documentary, Chow Down, contacted me recently and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing the film. She did not dictate what to write nor did she ask me to give her film a glowing review. Thanks, Julia. I’ve had fun playing movie critic – a secret desire many of us have, I’m sure.

If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend you check it out and ask your omnivore friends and family to do the same. The film is available on Hulu (and on Netflix, though it looks like there’s a wait on it) and you can view the trailer here. If you have seen it, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

You don’t get health out of a bottle of pills. You don’t get health out of a bunch of different operative procedures.”
– Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD, from the film

My friend calls them Come to Jesus moments. You might know them. Those rare instances when the focus sharpens, light illuminates what was formerly murky and the gears hum in well-oiled precision. Suddenly it – whatever It may be – is perfectly, beautifully clear. My Come to Jesus moment happened while reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, PhD. Kel and I went vegan and never looked back. But as I look around my own community and hear and read about the staggering toll taken by Standard American Diet-related illnesses and the steady rise in obesity, I’m waiting for America’s collective Come to Jesus moment. When will the majority of us understand that food is both the problem and the cure – and then make the dietary and lifestyle changes necessary to heal ourselves? When will the medical community actively support and promote these positive lifestyle changes rather than cracking open chests and scribbling out prescriptions for dangerous and not necessarily life-sustaining medications?

Over the past several years, Americans have had ample opportunities for experiencing their epiphanies. Numerous studies have been published by well-respected, unbiased (i.e., studies not funded by the meat, dairy or fast food industries) entities demonstrating the disastrous effects of diets heavy on meat, dairy and processed foods; books like the aforementioned The China Study, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Eat To Live and Super Immunity; movies such as Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, Vegucated and of course, Forks Over Knives, which has turned into an industry unto itself (and more power to it).

The 73-minute documentary released in 2010, Chow Down, is part of the list of average-Joe-goes-plant-based movies aimed at demonstrating the life-saving benefits of adopting a diet free of animal products. The movie follows the journeys of three people – all on the verge of suffering massive coronary events or otherwise suffering from diet-related illnesses and in desperate need of intervention. Instead of bypasses and stents, however, the three decide to heal themselves with the food they consume. Charles, who is counseled by Dr. Esselstyn, is the main focus of the film and we get the most information about him. His father and grandfather were butchers so you can understand what a particular challenge Charles has in getting healthy. (Charles wistfully recalls that when he was a child, his family ate “the best cuts of meat” from the shop.) I find the scenes that include his wife to be the most engaging. She brings warmth to the film and has such an obvious, huge love for her husband. Garnet is a patient of Dr. Joel Fuhrman and she struggles with a less than supportive family. John, the third subject of the film, is also being treated by Dr. Esselstyn. His former diet consisted of a steady intake of Kentucky Fried Chicken and pizza. (No spoilers: you’ll have to watch the film to see how they all do.)

In between conversations with the patients and their family members and man-on-the-street interviews there are cartoons and graphics that provide chilling statistics and sobering facts. We also hear from plant-based diet luminaries such as Dr. Esselstyn, Dr. Joel Fuhrman and Dr. Neal Barnard. Luise Light, formerly of the USDA, shares her experience in the creation of the first food pyramid (and a story of a bribe offered from a food conglomerate) and there are also various health researchers and diet experts providing commentary.

The documentary aims to cover a lot of ground and this may be one of its drawbacks. I found that the movie jumped around a bit too much for me. Just as I got interested in where the story of Charles or Garnet or John was going, the movie moved off to something else. I wanted to find out more about these people. (It takes a lot of courage to buck the traditional methods for treating heart disease, i.e., surgery followed by a lifetime of pills – why did these people choose to forgo them? Were they being guided with meal plans and recipes? Was exercise encouraged?) Forty minutes into the film and I still didn’t have a good feel for the subjects.

Finally, I have to admit that I got impatient during some of the cartoon sequences. They struck me as simplistic and were a distraction from what I felt should be the main focus of the film: the three protagonists. However, this criticism isn’t completely justified. Most of the film’s material is very familiar to me. I’m already eating a low-fat, low-sugar, plant-based diet. I’m singing in that choir. The filmmakers are rightly aiming their work at people who haven’t gotten the message – people who desperately need to hear the message and they need to receive it in the most easily digestible (apologies!) manner with easy-to-read and understand graphics. The film neatly distills down the science- and data-heavy info for those of us who find the shifting sands of nutritional recommendations frustrating and difficult to negotiate.

I think Chow Down does succeed at its goal: to bring the message that we are responsible for our own well-being and we can go a long way in healing ourselves simply by the food choices we make. Health does not, to paraphrase Dr. Esselstyn, come out of a bottle of Lipitor. It comes from the food that we eat (or don’t eat). Chow Down provides eye-opening data (i.e., that 130 million Americans suffer from chronic disease) in easily understood graphics and cartoons that should put the fear of premature death in every viewer. You really want to see Charles, Garnet and John get healthy. Overall, Chow Down is a welcome addition to the growing list of pro-plant-based diet documentaries and books. The topic is too important not to be hammered at incessantly. Until the majority of Americans (heck, the majority of the world) has their Come to Jesus moment, we need more movies like Chow Down.

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Happy Birthday


How do you celebrate a birthday when the celebrant is no longer Here?  Though time has ceased to tock forward for him – my brother will stay 51 for as long as I am alive – it still feels right to honor the day that he came into the world.  His passing does not lessen his impact on my life.  New memories will not be made, but the old provide comfort and smiles and tears.  Happy birthday, Charles.

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(Eating Vegan) Under the Sheltering Sky

Two Cookie-cookies

It can be challenging enough to feed Kel and me while we are on the road, but what about feeding 10 or 11 or 15?  In a place with (count them) zero restaurants, convenience stores or a bright and shiny Whole Foods stocked with vegan salads, hummus and whole grain bread?  Now consider that most of those I’ll be feeding are carnivores.

To celebrate my brother’s life, a big group of us – including many camping greenhorns (I’m among that number) – are heading south into the desert of Ten Mile Wash for a few days to spend time in a place my brother loved.  And before we do that, we’re running, walking or strolling The Little Grand Canyon 10k.  An army fights on its stomach; we have to eat.  By my count we’ll have two breakfasts, two lunches and one dinner out in the boonies.  I’ve cooked in small kitchens before, but the camper kitchen is a little snug, so I’m planning on bringing everything down in a nearly-finished or finished state.  Coolers will be clearly marked with “breakfast,” “lunch” and “dinner.”  Plastic bins will have almond butter, mixed grains, trail mix, dried fruit, utensils, kitchen towels, wet wipes, foil, freezer bags, a cutting board, knives and of course, lots of dog food for Ike.  He has to eat, too.

I planned out my menu several weeks in advance and in the week before the trip, I’ve been preparing and pre-baking and -making what I can.  I started with dessert first (makes sense, right?) with crazy Cookie Cookies from The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions.  Along with Double Chocolate Cookies with Blueberries and Mini Dark Chocolate Cashew Cheezcakes  (based on a recipe by Somer at Good Clean Food - who toiled away in her kitchen to develop these just for me; her selfless family did the taste-testing), our sweet teeth should be well-satisfied.

Mini Chocolate Cheezcakes

Mini CheezcakesBreakfasts will consist of mixed rolled grains with dried fruit and almond milk, whole grain bread with cashew and almond butters, apples, bananas and yummy raw bars featured in a previous post; plus the amazing Cookie Bites from a recipe by Erika at Good Clean Food.  My friend Sue specifically requested coffee so I’ll be bringing down a pound of Two Creek which serves up a proprietary blend from Jack Mormon Coffee.

Two Creeks Coffee

Cookie Bites

BBQ Tofu in TortillaFor lunch on the first day, we’ll have BBQ Baked Tofu Sandwiches from The Real Food Daily Cookbook, by Ann Gentry, served on Ezekial sprouted (wheat-free) tortillas (these are my new favorite thing) loaded with avocado, arugula, red onion and an amazing ranch dressing also from Real Food Daily.  Black bean potato salad with arugula pesto should compliment the sandwiches nicely.  That recipe is courtesy of the Forks Over Knives: The Plant-Based Way to Health cookbook.  We’ve got some gluten-intolerant folks coming along and I don’t want anyone to go hungry.

Macadamia Nut Cheez

Red Lentil Soup

We’ll start dinner off with a few slabs of Macadamia Nut Cheez, another recipe from the good folks at The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions.  It can get pretty chilly in the desert as the sun sets, so I’ll employ one of the camper’s burners to heat up a big pot of Red Lentil Soup also from the first Forks Over Knives cookbook.  I use green garbanzo beans instead of green beans and add mustard seeds and fresh spinach and cilantro.  It is such a flavorful and satisfying soup and I was able to freeze a big batch several days before the trip.  I’ll serve Curried Couscous Salad with the soup as well as whole grain rolls and the aforementioned mini Chocolate Cashew Cheezecakes.

I’m trying not to stress out too much, but there’s some pressure here.  Most of the people I will be feeding are not vegan and I want their eating experience to be satisfying, surprising (in a good way) and delicious.  I’d love to change some minds about what it means to eat plant-based.  I’d also like to be prepared enough that I can focus on why we are out in the desert.  This is all about remembering and celebrating my brother.

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Taking the Salt Air

Saltair Pavilion and BeachJust off of I-80 – the side that heads towards the town of Wendover (which spills over into Nevada) – and onto Reno (more than 500 long miles down the road), along the crusty, stinking banks of the Great Salt Lake, sits the Saltair Pavilion.  A curiosity, an updated relic from another age.  First built in 1893 as a resort and family-oriented amusement park, the building burned down in 1925.  It was rebuilt only to go up in flames once again in 1931.  It wasn’t until fifty years later that someone undertook to recreate the resort on the apparently doomed site.  This time it wasn’t fire but water that plagued the new Saltair.  The Great Salt Lake rose and flooded the building.

It’s nice and dry now – and is a functioning party and concert venue – (I’m sorely tempted to go see Jane’s Addiction who will perform there at the end of the month) but it retains an air of neglect.  The latest building is loosely modeled on the ornate original, but the tarnished onion domes, dull adobe facade and pointed arches are a Las Vegas architect’s perversion of a Russian Orthodox church crossed with the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.  Swallows’ nests crowd the ledges along the top of the building, windows are stained by the heavy salt air and bird droppings; and a handwritten sign taped to a side door window admonishes, “The Building is Closed No Bathrooms No Sightseeing No Trespassing Don’t Ask!!“  When we were there it didn’t stop several people from trying to open the chained and locked door.

Saltair from Afar

Saltair from afar.

Grasses, Salt Lake

Tall marsh grasses.


“Sticks” at the Great Salt Lake Marina.


One of the domes.

Swallow Nests

Nestled nests.

VIP Sign

The VIP window. Classy.

Bones in Sand

Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust. Sand to sand.

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Thankful & Thoughtful

Boots, Helmet, Ski Poles

What made him tick.

The things alive do not know the secret… Of late years, however, I have come to suspect that the mystery may just as well be solved in a carved and intricate seed case out of which life has flown, as in the seed itself.  – Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey

My brother died at 3:25 am July 5.  The pop and sizzle of neighbors’ firecrackers kept him company that night, gray skies and a gentle rain in the morning broke the spell of heat and drought and sun; more soothing than melancholy.  Determined and independent in his dying days as he was as a vibrant, healthy man, I have no doubt his plan was to make it through July 4; July was his favorite month and Independence Day his favorite holiday.

In the hours and days after his death, little things took on weighted importance: the memory of the last meal together at a restaurant; the image of a sweet smile when at last voice and words, but not comprehension, were taken from him; the half-full glass of water by his bed; the backpack on the kitchen table containing bottles of aspirin, ear plugs and a bathing suit from the last trip he took (to California); the tube of toothpaste, indented in the middle by the squeeze of his hand; his beat-up work boots looking as if he’d stepped out of them mere moments before.  It is those things more than the profound and sobering permanence of passing that make me break down.  What is more poignant than the little, seemingly insignificant objects and moments that make up a human life?

Anyone who has suffered through an illness or has helped a family member or friend knows that it is not a solo project.  It is a team effort requiring tens of supporting and supportive roles.  And so I have many people to thank.  First and foremost among them, my family.  My mom and dad dug deep and called on reserves that any 20-year old would envy.  Their strength and dignity through that lonesome night of loss is an example I will carry with me.  My other brother whose advise and care steadied during moments of stress and uncertainty.  My sister was a rock, holding firm during times when I melted like a candle.  Love to my partner, Kel, for keeping the home fires stoked and for caring for our little (furry) one, Ike.  His support has never wavered.  He loved my brother.  The caring embrace of extended family was felt over the long miles.

It is impossible to imagine what this process would have been like without the guidance, knowledge and compassion of our hospice team.  There were many late night visits and phone calls – moments of doubt and fear made manageable by a comforting voice on the other end of the line.  Stacey, Robyn and Carolyn guided us down that very difficult road.  Special gratitude goes to John, the gentle aide who helped my brother maintain his pride and dignity up to that very last day of life.  We were also fortunate to meet Riley, a young man who made our nights easier by his patient presence and his willingness to be touched by a family’s saddest hours.

Thanks and love go to the many friends – old and new, near and far – who sent emails and called.  The comments both here and on Facebook were deeply appreciated.  In challenging times, the true and the false are shown in stark relief: some of my brother’s friends reached lovingly out to us, shared aspects of him we never knew and offered to help in any way that they could.  Fate or coincidence sent Somer into my life at just the right moment.  She shared her huge, loving, nurturing heart with my brother, but also loaded the back of her vehicle – several times – with plant-based deliciousness and made the trek to Bountiful to spend time with me and open her arms for much-needed hugs.  Her beautiful kids never failed to cheer me with their exuberance and their life and energy.  Along with her friends Amanda and Erika (who have never met me, by the way) she provided heart, soul and stomach nourishment.  Thank you ladies of the Good Clean Food Relief Society.

In a strange twist, Faye came into my life on the very day my brother died and at the very coffee shop where he and I would go after his appointments at the clinic.  Over mutual admiration for short haircuts, I learned that Faye has the same type of brain cancer as my brother.  I’m not one to linger long on the oddities the universe occasionally throws across my path, but one would have to be devoid of imagination not to think something rather huge was up.  I hope to spend a lot more time with Faye and to share with her the thin threads of knowledge gathered over the past couple of years.

Merck and Genentech earned my gratitude for providing their prohibitively costly chemo drugs gratis through their assistance programs; big pharmaceuticals aren’t all bad.  Novocure not only requires thanks for pursuing interesting cancer treatment options, I’m indebted to them for giving my brother – free – their Novocure TTF helmet, a recently FDA-approved alternative treatment using electric fields to disrupt cancer cell growth.  Dr. Santosh Kesari at his lab at UCSD prescribed the device and he also, up until the last weeks of my brother’s life, suggested other treatment options.

Lastly, thanks to my brother’s medical team at The Huntsman Cancer Institute, especially to sweet Crelley who has become a friend, and Sean, who spent hours with me on the phone over the past two years explaining complex issues and trying to figure out what made my brother tick.  From the beginning of this journey they provided hope and knowledge and gave my brother another year of life when all seemed lost on bleak November days in 2010.  I often wonder how they can work day after day knowing that many of their patients will live only a short time post-diagnosis.  I am grateful there are people willing to devote their lives to treating such a formidable disease.  May a cure be found soon.

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Honey is for Bees

Honeybee on Pear BlossomThere is every likelihood that the honeybees swarming in and around the Bradford Pear blossoms are ours. Our Girls.  Those industrious ladies who shack up in the hives Kel and I put together two years ago.  I can’t help but feel tugs of the maternal when I see them.  There is much activity now around the entrances to the hives, guard bees on the lookout for intruders; single-minded workers arriving with pollen-laden hind legs and new bees memorizing their home with wobbly orientation flights.

There is also every likelihood that Kel and I are the worst beekeepers on the planet.  In fact, I call what we do (or rather, don’t do), “beehosting,” rather then beekeeping.  (I wrote about it at length on Dough, Dirt & Dye.)  Those early hive “inspections” proved so traumatic for us and for the bees that we decided to take the less is more approach and allow the bees to do what they’ve done, unaided, for thousands of years.  We no longer open the hives or blast them with smoke and we’ve never once harvested honey.  We made that decision before we became vegans because it made sense to us that during the lean late winter months they should consume what they had so painstakingly created with all those air hours and probing of petals.  Providing them with a cheap substitute – sugar syrup – didn’t appeal.  And we had no stomach for pulling apart their beautiful honeycomb simply because we wanted to sweeten our tea.

Hive Inspection

For the humble shelter we provide, Our Girls perform a valuable service for which we are grateful.  They pollinate our fruit trees and tomato plants and zucchini; they sneak into the greenhouse and inspect the citrus plants and the basil.  They love basil.  And Kel and I enjoy watching them go about their business – with absolutely no interest or concern for us.  Just as it should be.

Hive, Orange Team

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My Sally Field Moment*

I’m happy to report that the 2012 Award Season has not, unlike every year since my birth, passed me by!  It’s true: nominated in not one, but in two categories, I’ve gone home with three coveted prizes.  My Oklahoma living blog, Dough, Dirt & Dye, recently snagged a Versatile Blogger Award from Sweet Posy Dreams and the other day I went home with the heretofore unknown Liebster Blog Award, bestowed upon me by the ethereally-named and culinarily-attuned, Luminous Vegans.  And just when I thought the festivities were over and it was time to return the borrowed jewels, Nolita at M*O*R*G*A*N*I*C honored Dough, Dirt & Dye with another Liebster!  What a week!  I really appreciate all of the attention!  The most gratifying part of blogging is the connections I’ve made over the past several months.  Thank you to everyone who reads and comments on my blogs – and an extra big thank you to Luminous Vegans and M*O*R*G*A*N*I*C.

Here’s how it works (and I quote):

“Liebster is German and translates into English as “dearest” or ”favorite”.   A Liebster Blog Award is given to talented bloggers who have less than 200 followers. So, in a way the award not only recognizes these bloggers as amazingly gifted in their own right but also as your very own personal favorites.”

How to participate:

  • Thank your Liebster Blog Award presenter on your blog.
  • Link back to the blogger who presented the award to you.
  • Copy and paste the blog award on your blog.
  • Present the Liebster Blog Award to 5 blogs of 200 followers or less who you feel deserve to be noticed. (Some say just 3 or more blogs of less than 200 followers each)
  • Let them know they have been chosen by leaving a comment at their blog.

I’m cheating a little bit here by combining both Liebsters in one blog, so please forgive me.  Here are my picks:

SconesLorna’s Tearoom Delights
As I read Lorna’s blog entries about the various tea shops she visits, it’s easy to imagine myself there with her, tucked into a comfortable chair (it probably should be raining or at least misty outside) with a pot of steaming tea in front of me alongside a flaky pastry or moist slice of cake.  Her accompanying photos take me right into the shops – their delicate edibles, the quirky decor and cozy charm.  The good service and the bad service…


The Live Better Blog (aka Absolute Haven)
Jenn’s blog makes me laugh and what could be better than that?  And since she writes about everything and anything, it’s always interesting, sometimes provocative and usually hilarious.  I am especially looking forward to reading about her adventure in building (and living in) a Tiny home.

Waffles and SyrupVegan Kat
After myself, Kathryn was the first person to Like my Facebook page – mere days after I’d launched An Unrefined Vegan.  I thought, “How on earth did she find me?  And how cool is that?”  I feel like I’ve been in it since the beginning with her and I always look forward to her posts and spins on vegan cooking.  Kathryn is focusing on breakfast items this month in honor of National Hot Breakfast Month (not to be confused with National Breakfast Month which is in September).

Heather’s Vegan Diary (Becoming Vegan)
Heather is relatively new to the blogging and vegan scene.  A mutual Oklahoma vegan blogger (there’s a mouthful for you!) introduced me to her blog, and I am so impressed with her effort, sincerity and commitment to a new lifestyle.  Especially since she’s raising a toddler and trying to introduce him to veganism.  In a state where vegans are as rare as unicorns, it’s nice to have someone else join the ranks.

And here I mention two blogs that would have been included in this list had someone not beaten me to the punch, and awarded them already: A Tablespoon of Liz and Edible Substance.  And if you haven’t visited Luminous Vegans and M*O*R*G*A*N*I*C there’s still time!  Go!!  And please take some time to explore all of these creative blogs!

*You like me, you really, really like me!

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The Party’s Over

View from Scripps AquariumAfter nine days with family in La Jolla and easy, walking access to all kinds of culinary temptations, it’s time to return to the “wilderness” of Oklahoma and back to simple, unrefined eating.  I’ve enjoyed my little break, but I’m anxious to get back to my low sugar, low-fat, plant-based, whole grain eating routine.  Turns out I don’t have the iron-clad restraint I thought I did!

It’s been fun, though: I sampled vegan cupcakes from Sprinkles and Cups; three kinds of vegan cookies (peanut butter chocolate chip, oatmeal chocolate chip, double chocolate chip – see a pattern here?) from Whole Foods (these got high marks from non-vegan family, by the way); sipped daily soy mochas from local spots like Harry’s, Pannikin Coffee & Tea and the Coffee Cup Cafe; and enjoyed several rich restaurant meals complete with glasses of red wine.  Ouch.  In my defense, I did run every morning – how could I not with this picture postcard scenery? – got my strength training done in the mornings, and I made a few virtuous meals at our rented “home.”

Despite all of the good food, I was surprised to see the dearth of vegan and vegan-friendly options here.  I figured Southern California would be lousy with tasty choices, but more often than not, I was offered a salad or grilled vegetables as the vegan alternative when dining out.  ZZZzzzzz.  On the other hand, I did have a pleasantly surprising experience at lunch yesterday.  As I looked through the menu at Shelter Island Bali Hai (it looks scarily touristy on the outside, but the setting cannot be beat: San Diego skyline, elegant sailboats gliding on sparkling water), my heart sank.  There was not a single menu item that could have been made into a vegan entree.  My stomach was growling and I petulantly contemplated the basket of sourdough bread – would that and a cup of green tea be my lunch?!  I was close to a plant-based meltdown and it wasn’t going to be pretty.  The server appeared just then and when I said “vegan,” she went back to the kitchen and returned with a totally different menu – one for vegetarians.  She told me the chef could tweak the tofu steak with fennel, pickled eggplant and roasted vegetables (see below) to make it pure vegan.  The storm clouds dissipated; the meltdown cooled.  Family members breathed a sigh of relief.  Turns out it was one of the best meals we’d all had during our visit.  So – slowly, slowly – changes are coming.  I don’t think it will be too long before more and more restaurants offer vegan options – not just side dishes piled onto a plate – but real, creative and inventive food that is healthy and animal- and cruelty-free.

Tofu Steak with Fennel

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