Cynthia Lair has experienced an evolution of culture and nutrition since first explaining kale in the first edition of her now-classic book.
IT’S FUNNY WHAT’S changed and what hasn’t changed since Cynthia Lair first wrote about cooking with whole foods.
Lair is a longtime faculty member at Bastyr University, where she founded and was curriculum director for the Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Culinary Arts program. She’s also an actress specializing in improvisational comedy. Both career paths have come in handy for teaching families to cook doable, nutritious meals that also taste good.
With diets evermore “confused and politicized” and segmented into trends, she says, “What I’ve been saying lately is, a big, hearty laugh is as good or better than a plate of kale.”
Lair needed to define kale for readers at first. It’s “a big-leafed, dark-green plant, rich in vitamin A, vitamin C and calcium,” she explained in her classic book, “Feeding The Whole Family.”
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Her first recipes were influenced by macrobiotic meals, which she took up in her 20s as an actress in New York City. Her mother had been diagnosed with cancer, she says, and she wondered, “What can I do?” Food seemed like an answer.
Lair was astounded by how much better she felt after switching from a “garbage” diet heavy on Diet Coke to brown rice and miso.
“I was a total believer then — oh, you can eat so that you feel better, look better, have better energy? I had no idea.” The money she earned from television commercials at that point afforded her “the life of an artist” and, ultimately, the chance to study nutrition.
When daughter Grace was born in 1987, she started developing family-friendly recipes that used whole foods.
Original recipes focused more on vegetarianism; in later editions of her book, she also emphasized choosing animal products carefully. “It’s OK to be a vegetarian, it’s OK to be an omnivore; just do both of them consciously.”
Also, “I got away from putting seaweed and tamari on everything fairly quickly.”
More recently, Lair emphasized fermented foods, inspired by growing research on gut bacteria, food allergies and autoimmune diseases. “The health of the microbiome is going to dictate the rest of your health,” she says. That’s led to the book she’s currently researching, on long-fermented sourdough breads.
She hopes each iteration of her work has brought in a wider audience: “Can’t we all come to this party?”
Lair speaks to various groups, from Dr. Andrew Weil’s national Nutrition & Health Conference to a cooking comedy show (cookusinterruptus.com) to public lectures. Hearing her speak to an auditorium of new parents when my own daughter was a baby, I remember how reassuring and inspiring she was: a rare voice cutting through the chaos of feeding children.
I thought at the time that Lair had a particular gift for reaching parents. Maybe she does, but she thinks her acting background lets her relate to whichever group she’s with.
“People have this strange notion that improvisational theater is about thinking about clever things to say and being funny, and it’s the utter opposite. It’s about being empty-minded and responding to whatever is happening in the moment. So if I’m going to talk to your group, I’m with you.”
When she first developed her book on feeding babies, children and families, she felt like a lonely voice. She self-published it, selling 55,000 copies out of her garage, with recipes like hummus (“a traditional Middle-Eastern dish excellent for vegetarian sandwiches”) and Gracie’s Yellow Birthday Cake (it includes cooked millet). Sasquatch Books picked it up in 2007, adding new recipes and color photos. She also wrote “Feeding The Young Athlete” (Readers to Eaters), on sports nutrition for kids.
By the time her latest edition was published in 2016, “I was in lots of good company.”
True, diners are dividing themselves in more-dogmatic ways, insisting the only true path involves veganism, or Paleo, or gluten-free food, or whatever grail the moment holds. Simultaneously, though, the heart of her message is becoming widely accepted:
“Everything always seems to come back to moderation … ” she says. “Just cook your own food. Use as many real ingredients as you can. The end.”