Couple benefits from 40 years of plant-based cuisine, culture
By Nina Alvarez
At 57, Margaret “Maggie” Odhner takes no medication, has no allergies or headaches, and has never been hospitalized.
She radiates good health and even better cheer. It’s the same for her husband Daryl, 62, who was able to get off medication for depression decades ago. They both credit their good health with a decision made separately nearly 40 years ago: to become vegetarians.
They’ve invited me, a family friend and meat-eater-at-large, over for dinner. Two long candles are lighted and the table is spread with square slices of soft rice cheese, hand-ground pita, and a spicy and frankly addictive hummus. My hostess offers me a light cocktail and we toast while her husband is cleaning up for dinner.
Then I stand by and snap photos of her preparing what she calls “tempeh reubens with my own twist.”
“What’s the twist?” I ask.
“I sauté the tempeh in onions and garlic first,” she said.
Only short miles from open farmland and those long, lonely roads between towns like Scottsville, Wheatland and Churchville, the Odhner’s Chili home seems to glow with welcome. But it’s in the center of this home — the kitchen — where you’ll encounter the real heart of the family. Here three girls — Audrey, Amber and Rachel — now out of the house, were raised with vegetarian meals, homework, parties, and family discussions. Now, as empty nesters, Maggie and Daryl have maintained and even ungraded the warmth of the kitchen with long-awaited renovations, a new French Country-style wood kitchen table, and charming and useful touches like an artisanal glass water pitcher. And, as always, a copy of the nondenominational prayer book “A Grateful Heart” within arm’s reach.
The Odhner’s vegetarianism has always seemed to me a gastronomic endeavor. It involves discovering, tasting, researching, experiencing, and understanding food preparation and human nutrition as a whole. Over the years, they’ve reaped rewards in not just physical wellness, but in what they believe to be emotional and spiritual wellness as well.
“It can all wrap into one philosophy of living,” says Maggie. “With your conscience you are protecting the earth. And now there’s even more information on why eating vegetarian is environmentally positive — less carbon footprint. You are using less packaging, less resources. This actually matters beyond the scope of my personal life.”
Maggie, a nurse, made the leap to vegetarianism in the 1970s while a student at Onondaga Community College, around the time the pair met, out of concern for those starving across the world. “People were documenting how many acreages of farmland were being used to feed livestock, and how that grain translates into feeding people — pasture land where food could be grown to feed people.”
Daryl, an industrial hygienist at the New York State Department of Labor, became vegetarian while still a teen. An older friend in his Pennsylvania religious community who was raising his young family without meat was the first to sway him.
“People talk about the lamb of God and then go and have lamb for dinner,” Daryl still remembers him saying. Clinically depressed, deeply compassionate, and searching for answers, trying out a radically different diet made sense.
Maggie pulls her signature red hair into a bun, the same vibrant locks she passed on to all three of her daughters. These days, Maggie has about mastered the art of plant-based cuisine, but it took time. In the ‘80s, while raising three little girls, she relied on the Molly Katzen’s iconic “Moosewood Cookbook” with dishes like whole wheat Russian macaroni that, according to Maggie, “teach you that you can put these different foods together to make a delicious, exotic meal that leaves you not only satisfied, but empowered.”
She keeps light conversation going while she handily places chunks of the tempeh on locally baked Flour City rye. To the untrained eye, tempeh looks like long blocks of brie but it is actually soybeans bound into a cake form. She smothers each piece with a generous helping of locally produced sauerkraut.
“From Small World Bakery,” she explains. “We like to support local.” With a dash of homemade vegan Thousand Island dressing and a couple shakes of pepper, the pan disappears into the oven to bake.
My hostess sits down with me and we toast while picking at the hors d’oeuvres while talking about her two new jobs. Both seem to balance on a similar leading edge: reducing chronic illness through preventive lifestyle changes. After decades as a head nurse practitioner at Strong Hospital in Rochester, she was the first to be hired under an umbrella called “transition care” as part of the delivery system reform incentive program to reduce the number of hospital admissions by a full 25 percent.
Her other new role is with Rochester Lifestyle Medicine, a local clinic dedicated to reducing the burden of health care costs related to chronic disease. It focuses, among a handful of holistic methods, on helping people move toward a whole-food plant-based eating pattern. A whole-food, plant-based diet focuses on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants and fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes. It minimizes meat, dairy products, and eggs, and highly refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil.
The new health guidelines coming out from big medical societies like the American Dietetic Association and American Heart Association for those with diabetes and cholesterol management problems are that lifestyle and dietary modifications are the first step. Maggie, in both her roles, will be helping people with diabetes and heart disease come off medications through lifestyle changes.
She says, “A tsunami of information is coming about plant-based diet, disease and health.” She recommends picking up “Diet for a Small Planet,” and watching the documentary “PlantPure Nation,” which you can rent or buy online.
Indeed, with books like “Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition,” and informational sites like Nutritionfacts.org run by New York Times bestselling author Michael Gregor, a lot is coming out about the complex effects of what we put in our bodies over the short- and long-term.
Gregor teaches that a convergence of evidence suggests an affordable plant-based diet can help prevent and even reverse some of the top killer diseases in the Western world and can be even more effective than medication and surgery.
Maggie explains the importance of good health in your 50s. “You are in a pivotal point in your genetic evolution, because in your 50s your cells are more likely to have cancerous origins. But the research shows that if you live through your 50s and you don’t have cancer or another chronic disease, chances are you are going to make it through your 60s. If you make it through your 60s, your odds are better for living through your 70s and so-on.”
And if you are already sick, Maggie suggests visiting Rochester Lifestyle Medicine, and trying a plant-based diet because, as she puts it, “You’ve got nothing to lose. And there are people there to help you learn how to do it.”
Her husband offers do-it-yourself starter suggestions.
You can buy whole and even pre-made vegetarian and vegan foods at Wegmans, Abundance Co-Op, Lori’s Natural Foods, the Public Market, or anywhere you shop. You can join a community supported agriculture program. But he also recommends if you are buying a bunch of veggies to first procure a good cookbook. Cooking delicious recipes will make the transition a lot easier. Maggie suggests “The Compassionate Cook” and “Vegan Planet.”
The tempeh reubens come out and are paired with a handsome side salad full of daikon, white turnip, carrots, and scallions. Before we eat, my hosts say a prayer: “This food is from the earth and sky, it is a gift of the entire universe and much hard work.”
For the Odhners, mealtime is clearly about joy, ease, and communion. They live it up, eat, drink, and are merry. Maggie has an infectious laugh, almost a cackle, and is gregarious, grounded, and fun. Daryl, a trim and compact man with large, liquid eyes, is thoughtful, self-effacing, and deeply sincere.
Amber, their middle daughter, co-owns Eat Me Ice Cream, a popular Rochester artisanal ice cream brand that offers new, inventive flavors every week, always with a vegan option. Of her vegetarian upbringing, Ambers says, “I feel that being raised in a home where food is something you talk about was a positive influence. I was vegan for a long time, but I pulled away from putting words on how I choose to eat. Mostly I do eat vegetarian, but my boyfriend hunts, so I do eat venison and fish, but I try to be conscientious about it. Thinking about where food comes from is probably the most important thing.”
This is good to hear for people like me who aren’t ready to give up meat but are ready to increase the fruits, vegetables, and whole foods they pile on their plates.
Daryl and Maggie, though, are committed to their way of life. Twelve years ago, once the girls were all away in college and making their ways in the world, Daryl decided to go vegan, something he’d been contemplating since 1975.
Two years later, Maggie followed, though it was harder for her. She loved to eat cheese and bake with eggs. “But the truth is, when I get right down to it, the more I know about the environmental and earth-impact of being a vegan, that’s where I really want to be. And I’ve proved it — I’m 57 years old and I’ve proved that I’m well. I’m not on any medications. I feel as though I have a pretty good wellness factor. So I’ll stick it out.”