Interview with Dr. Theresa Nicassio Author of YUM: plant-based recipes for a gluten-free diet

I met Dr. Theresa Nicassio at the Gluten-Free Expo on January 16, 2016 in Vancouver and purchased her book, YUM: plant-based recipes for a gluten-free diet. She kindly agreed to do an interview about her book for this blog. Whether you or someone you know live with dietary restrictions, this post will be worth your while.

After reading about the scourge of processed food and its unstoppable creep into the North American diet, Theresa Nicassio’s work is surely an antidote. Winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook Award, Yum: plant-based recipes for a gluten-free diet, is representing Canada at the World Cookbook Fair, up against 209 cookbooks from around the world.

Theresa is a self-professed renegade; a visionary in the growing and vibrant food culture movement toward simple, healthful and healing food.  Theresa shares her philosophy, knowledge and personal story in a passionate, positive, inclusive and holistic way. She suffered from debilitating autoimmune challenges for years never suspecting that conventional foods were making her sick. It was her drive to heal and be around for her daughters’ graduations that led to this self-published work of practical art. Theresa summed up YUM as a “book for living your best life”.

Theresa deliberately made the recipes in YUM easy. “The simplicity results in such a deliciousness of flavor.” Simplicity does not preclude the richness and fullness of flavor or the satisfaction of each mouthful.  As a psychologist of 29 years, Theresa is well aware of the consequences of denying that which people desire and the process of lasting behavioral change. She begins the conversation with the psychology of eating, discussing the challenge of living with dietary limitations and the sense of loss that comes with dietary restrictions, particularly when life springs such change upon us.

“While it’s important to know, learning that certain foods disagree with our unique physiology for any reason can be difficult news to accept. Such news challenges us to change our daily ways of living and to alter habits that we typically don’t really want to change. What makes such information even more difficult to receive is that it also involves loss.” (p. 1)

Here are excerpts from our conversation.

What has been the overall response to YUM?

“Our launch was September 19, 2015 and it has been phenomenal. At the book launch itself we had about 500 people in attendance. When I’ve been speaking and going places, what usually happens is people see the book and think, ‘it’s another cookbook’. They know someone who could benefit from it; someone who is vegetarian or has celiac disease and this book would make a great gift for them. After making the purchase and take some time looking at the book and discover what it really has to offer, they come back again and want more books, including one for themselves. I’ve had many people say, “This isn’t just a cookbook. Yes, it has amazing recipes but this is more than a cookbook. It’s a comprehensive resource book. You shouldn’t even call it a cookbook!” That really warms my heart. This is so much more than a cookbook. It’s a psychologically grounded philosophy book where I use food as a metaphor for helping people change how they think about themselves, how they think about the planet, how they think about their bodies, how they think about food, and how they live life in a way that actually helps them to turn their life around in ways that are so much more than about food.”

What inspired you to write this book?

“I want to invite people back to the simplicity of beauty and deliciousness and accepting what is; including people, by caring about what their needs are. People talk to me about the book and say, “I don’t have any dietary restrictions.” And I say, “That’s great, but do you have any people you care about that do have dietary restrictions?”  This book equips you to be a better friend and love and care for people; to let them know they matter and not make them feel like they are a burden. You can create something delicious that everyone can enjoy. That inclusive quality for me takes many forms. I know how much it means for people to feel included and the negative impact of being excluded, whether it’s intentional or not.”

How did you arrive at the title?

“I tossed around several titles. People would just make this sound and say ‘yum’ when they tasted the food. I looked on Amazon to see if there were any books with the title YUM  and there was no cookbook with “YUM” in the title at the time. Basically, the book named itself.”

How did you choose the recipes?

“Test Kitchen feedback demonstrated an incredible excitement about the ultra-simple recipes. So I thought, my youngest daughter was 12 at the time, I’m going to include only the recipes that a 12 year old could make–at  least in principle and was ruthless in this process—while all of the recipes were delicious, only the very easiest ones made the cut. If it was too complicated, it didn’t make the cut. It’s already 368 pages, we are not lacking in content! There were many other amazing (but slightly more challenging) recipes that I’ve decided to save for future books and product development.  Even though it was hard to cut some recipes out, a big part of my reason for doing this is my knowledge of how disconnected children have become from where food comes from and also what we see with the rise of childhood obesity and diabetes. Kids can feel engaged in the process. I wanted this book to help everyone, not just those people who were already into the health food movement. I wanted to make it easy for people, regardless of education or cultural background. I wanted to make it accessible and not scary at all for everyone to live a healthier and more joyful life with greater ease.”

You share a story in the book about having people over for dinner and not having to apologize for what you put on the table. Can you elaborate?

“We invited this friend of ours for a Thanksgiving dinner. He was worried about what to bring and just wasn’t sure what the food would be like. He was all anxious about it. But when started the dinner with delicious food that was so satisfying, he was surprised.  We had a good laugh later when he said halfway through his pasta dish that he didn’t realize that the pasta wasn’t made of wheat (or even grain), but was actually spiralized zucchini! He loved it and everything about it.  We didn’t say anything. He just couldn’t believe it. And the marinara sauce is so outrageous, he of course had a second helping.  The rest of the feast carried on similarly. Though it was a few years ago, he still reminisces about the dinner and the apple dessert we had at the end.”

Carrot Blossom Tea? Tell me how this came about.

“It was actually just an accident. My youngest daughter had really wanted to grow carrots, so she chose some gorgeous, multi-coloured heirloom carrot seeds and planted them. Upon time to harvest, she picked some, but not all of them. The rest of the plants over-wintered—we figured that was the end of that. However, come spring, the plants seemed to revive and grow. To our surprise, these gorgeous, feathery plants grew and grew and grew—some towering above 6 feet high! When they kept growing—-kind of like Jack in the Beanstalk fashion, we decided to watch in wonderment what would happen. What happened next was little blossoms began to form—the funkiest looking buds and blossoms we’d ever seen!  I just kept photographing them at the different stages—feeling like a child in wonderment every step of the way. You can see examples of some of these buds and blossoms featured on page 31, 44, 111, as well as peeking around in the background of some of the other food photos. I love it when people ask what they are. Anyway, one day while watering the garden, I noticed an incredible sweet, yet slightly floral scent. My book editor was over at the time. I cut a blossom and went into the house to research carrot blossoms on the internet to make sure it wasn’t poisonous. It turns out that these blossoms have so many amazing healing properties and it tastes delicious. I made the tea for us and we just sat and drank it in my house, relishing in its delicious uniqueness.”

There is not a single mention of fat or weight loss in the book!?

“You’re absolutely right. I want to help people free themselves from that tyranny because it doesn’t work. When we focus on what we want to move away from, whether it is weight gain or being heavy, sometimes we can temporarily change our behaviors. But first of all, it’s not joyful and second of all, it’s not sustainable. When we can focus on what we want to move toward in our life, what we like, and what we are drawn to, we are more likely to follow through and the change be sustainable. The whole notion of weight loss has turned into an ugly source of shame, and self-loathing and distraction about the source and soul of who we are.  I am so passionate about that. What’s interesting is that this book has now won the World Gourmand Cookbook Award in the category as the “Best Diet Book” for the public in Canada. Now 209 countries are competing for the best cookbook in that category in the world. The winners will be announced at the end of May 2016. I did not choose the category. It’s not a “diet book” like what people would think. It’s not about dieting. It’s about diet; what we eat.  People start eating better, nourishing their bodies. Funnily enough, many have been reporting discovering weight just coming off when they eat recipes from the book. I think this may have to do with how anti-inflammatory, healthy and satisfying the recipes are. And because the book is not about restricting food intake (ironically, even though many who enjoy the book live with “food restrictions”), but about delicious food that is nutrient-dense and overall offers a higher water-density, their bodies are able to not only feel full more readily and be better hydrated, but also more readily absorb the nutrients from the food that they eat. It makes me really happy to witness the joy that readers have been sharing with me about improvements in their health that they have been discovering through their YUM journey.”

Are you going to go to Frankfurt for the World Cookbook Fair ?

“If I win in May, I will.”

What are your top three go-to recipes?

  1.  Creamy sunflower seed sauce although the hoisin sauce is to die for (pg. 318)

  2. Cheesy Baked Broccoli (pg. 150)

  3. Nori Rice Paper Wraps (pg. 217)

I have to also say that the Vanilla-Coconut Ice Cream (p. 275) is another amazing standby that everyone goes crazy for.

This is such a hard question!!! There are so many others I could blab on about….but I’ll stop with those four!

Where do you go from here?

“I have been doing a lot of public speaking and media spots—people are hungry for the message I have to offer as an integrative wellness professional who is speaking up about what so many are feeling in their hearts. We are at an amazing crossroads on this planet, and interestingly, our food supply and our lifestyle habits around food have become front and centre. When there are reputable scientific reports that 49-52% of the US population now are diabetic or pre-diabetic (with an alarming increase in childhood diabetes) and we see the trend of an increasing incidence of cancer, neuro-degenerative, and auto-immune problems, something needs to change. I feel called to do what I can to help this effort. In addition, I’ve been approached to manufacture some of the recipes in the book. I’m not yet sure where all of this will go. Many folks have suggested getting to market the Creamy Sunflower Seed Sauce, for example, but there are dozens that could be a hit in the stores—both raw and cooked recipes. Right now my primary focus is getting this book and its message out into people’s hands and getting the word out. It feels like the product development will evolve pretty organically—it just seems the right thing to do, especially for those wanting really healthy gluten- and sugar-free plant-based food, even when they don’t have the time or the kitchen to make it themselves. And I am also focusing on getting some balance back into my life. This book is a totally home-grown job and as such, has been extremely consuming. Not only did I develop the recipes and write the entire book, but I also did all the food and garden styling and photography and have gone on to become the publisher of the book. On top of everything else, we started our own publishing company as well, D&D Publishing. Pretty amazing where this journey that started with my own health crisis has brought me!”

Get Your YUM

You can purchase your own copy of YUM from the official YUM website.

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