Food Brings People Together
Growing up with an Italian-American grandmother meant there was always food around and always an opportunity to learn and help. I have such fond memories of cooking and baking with Gram. From Sunday sauce to potatoes and eggs, time in the kitchen was always a treat. She did everything by eye – no recipes, ever. She cooked using her sense of sight, smell, and sound; she was an amazing woman.
Everything we ate was mostly homemade but in looking back, nothing was farm fresh; the canned goods had a room all to themselves, and there were two freezers stuffed with all sorts of prepackaged snacks and meals that just needed a quick heat. Though Gram loved to cook, she too enjoyed the “conveniences” of modern day life.
Since Gram was 100% Italian, you can only imagine the amount of food available at any given time. Gramps would say, “she cooked for an army.” And that she did. If you happened to stop by around dinner time, you were automatically expected to stay and eat. Most did, as everyone loved the company of Connie and Joe (and of course, they too loved the food). Holidays were nothing short of a studio production. She loved meal requests and was always happy to comply. Sunday sauce was a given and my siblings and I were always clean-up crew. Some of my fondest memories are at Gram’s table, with family and friends, enjoying one of her meals and hearing stories of years past.
While she didn’t teach me about farmers’ markets and healthy eating – she did teach me the basics to cooking and was always eager to support my love affair with baking. But, perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that food brings people together.
The Journey Begins
Jump years ahead, I meet Jen and the journey begins with our love for indulgence (and each other). Just like myself, my wife, Jennifer is an Italian American who happens to come from a very similar family. Since the beginning of our relationship, food always played a major role. Truth is, we both love to eat and indulge – it just makes us happy.
Before starting Natural Contents, we consumed the Standard American Diet (SAD) – high in bad fats, lots and lots of carbs, sugar through the roof and highly processed food-like substances all around. For us, take-out was every day for lunch; meat, boxed potatoes and ready to eat salad was for dinner some nights; pizza or Chinese on a few of the others; and heated frozen food filled the rest; along with cereal, bagels, pasta, and bread throughout. Diet soda ran through my veins and I had made Jen an addict in no time. I liked coffee with cream and three packs of the blue stuff – multiple times a day. The kids, of course, always had their fill of nuggets, fries, frozen pizza, mac and cheese, hot dogs, milk and juice.
There was a fast food circuit we ventured on every now and again – all the favorites from Micky D’s, our gal pal and good old, Yo quiero. Yes, all three fast food joints in one meal. Not to mention, whenever a D&D was in sight, it was time for coffee, donuts, munchkins, and bagels. Eating out, at all sorts of restaurants, was our thing. Once, when faced with a dessert choice after a lavish soup-to-nuts meal at an Italian eatery, our response was, “one of each, please.” Crazy, we know, but indulging became our shared passion.
When it was time to eat “better,” we turned to frozen diet meals, veggie subs from the “healthy” fast food submarine, grilled chicken breast salads, whole wheat everything and 100 calorie snack packs were our treat multiple times a day – all providing the false sense we were grabbing the bull by the horns. In reality, we were simply feeding the beast more crap just packaged with healthier claims.
Unhealthy habits always catch up with you; it’s just a matter of time. Jen had a history of digestive and neurological issues, which carried along an MS (of-sorts) diagnoses back in her early 20s. The kids were always sick with one thing or another – 6 weeks couldn’t pass without someone being down for the count. As for me, heart concerns at 25, severe cystic acne, major hormone issues and by the time I turned 28, I was having extreme gallbladder attacks – some lasting ten to twelve hours. Something was definitely wrong; we knew it was time to pay attention to our bodies.
After a few attacks and refusal to go the hospital, I finally made an appointment with my MD. The verdict, “change what you eat or it needs to come out.” No real solid advice came that day – just, stay away from fried, fatty foods. And, since gallbladder removal is common and accepted, no one (except Jen and I) felt phased by the idea of its removal. Not wanting to deal with surgery, hospitalization, anesthesia, and everything else that would come with such a procedure, we looked for an “alternative” voice. Luckily, we found a wonderful woman, Lynn, who specialized in Nutritional Microscopy and Bioterrain Auditing.
Though Lynn did agree the food needed to change, her advice was totally different “no need to remove, you just need to cleanse and heal your body.” Not only did we chat all things bile, gallbladder and liver-related but we also discussed the potential for diabetes, identified food sensitivities, blood parasites, anemia and more. Right then, it was clear – if you don’t take hold of your health, it will take hold of you. Since we were just entering our 30s, it didn’t seem right for things to be so out of control.
Slowly, but surely, we explored different options and made new decisions. Investigating became the new obsession. Digging around the food industry left us in a state of horror. It seemed as though we were uncovering all sorts of truths about food. Growth hormones, antibiotics, feedlots, pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – the story just kept getting worse. We searched online and off-line, watching every documentary we could. With skyrocketing rates of obesity, autism, chronic pain, heart disease, neurological disorders, cancer, and so on – it made us think, could it be the food? Since all signs pointed to “sure, it could seriously be a major factor no one really talks about,” we decided to take our family off the very SAD diet and invest our hard earned dollars into our health and wellness.
It’s Not a Diet – It’s a Lifestyle
Almost every single habit of ours changed. When we started the transition, one thing was clear I needed to re-learn my idea of cooking. Having gone from the Standard American Diet to a clean, gluten, grain and soy free lifestyle, you can only imagine the endless evenings of confusion about what to make. Shopping the grocery store made it worse. Everything we used to eat was there – what were we supposed to eat now? Everything we had known needed changing. And that change took a serious turn (for the best) the day we found our local farmers’ market in Callicoon, NY.
Unlike shopping at a grocery store, the farm market offered a deeper connection. We would ask the farmers questions about how things were grown and to explain varietal differences. They were always eager to share cooking tips and best practices. A true opportunity to taste, learn and discover farm fresh food.
Meal times became an adventure. At the time, Geri and Jason were six and eight (now thirteen and fifteen). New farm market finds were constantly introduced. A one to ten rating system and a “what’s in this” guessing game were developed amongst the four of us. The rating scale helped identify foods they loved, liked, hated, or would only eat if forced to. The guessing game helped teach them to identify ingredients. These two simple games made mealtime much easier and brought many different conversations to the table. They were engaged and always eager to participate, asking questions, even offering constructive feedback.
We won’t lie and say there was never crying, gagging and meals that lasted way too long. But, in the end, we wouldn’t change a thing. The kids adapted, and adapted well. Any struggles were always talked through with the explanation that it was for our family’s health and wellbeing. They listened and understood what made food bad and knew our new foods were full of nutrients and vitamins that would make our bodies function better. Even though they were young, they too could see and feel the difference. And though food-life does get tough when they walk out our door, they have great food discretion when faced with the realities of the industrial food world. Our advice is always simple – make the best choices you can.
Serving Up Natural Contents
Somewhere along the journey, we realized, it wasn’t hard – but hell, it sure wasn’t easy. So, we went into Capricorn-duo mode and decided if we had this struggle (and made it through), surely other folks were having similar battles (and maybe we could help them as well). Our hope was to make a difference by sharing our story and experience. And so, NaturalContents.com came to life in 2010.
In the beginning, we started with meal kits and pantry staples determined to give folks the tools needed to get back into the kitchen. But after taking on a few catering events, the requests for prepared food began to mount. Our small Sullivan County, NY community was looking for ready-to-eat healthy fare that tasted good; and who better to serve it up than the gals from Natural Contents. With our noses to the grindstone, we revamped and launched the Natural Contents Kitchen in 2012 as a community supported kitchen (CSK) model. Our weekly menu included everything from veggie burgers and meaty mains to seasonal veggie lasagna and of course, plenty of healthy indulgences. Individual coolers were packed and Jen would hit the road to deliver farm fresh real food to our members. And although folks were eating this food in the comfort of their own homes, we were all sharing the same meal while supporting the efforts of regional farms.
As the business evolved, we faced yet another transition. Certain items became very popular, driving a wedge between an ever-changing menu and continually selling our most popular products. With a quickly growing wholesale opportunity, Natural Contents Kitchen morphed into a product-driven, small-batch food company. Onward, we went selling our packaged goods at area farmers’ markets as well as through food delivery services in the region.
As Natural Contents Kitchen took lift, it became very clear that our education mission had fallen to the wayside. Ridiculously long hours in the kitchen (as well as every other component of running a small food business) left little time for doing what we originally set out to do. So, with a little hope and a big dream, we decided to apply for (and were granted) the USDA’s Local Food Promotion Program Grant in 2015. Which leads us here today – food entrepreneurs, lifestyle bloggers, and cookbook creators devoted to farm fresh clean eating with a gluten and grain-free twist. Our mission has always been, and still is, to help folks make the transition to a clean healthy lifestyle.
Knowledge Changes Everything
It certainly did for us. Our cookbook and website are meant to inspire you to learn about and create farm fresh clean food that is free of gluten, grain, and soy. Food that will ultimately bring people together. So delicious, the whole family will love. It’s not about giving up food, it’s about revamping, recreating and reconnecting to it. Mix and match, experiment, make mistakes, master your favorites, make them your own – and most importantly have fun. Enjoy the journey, don’t give up or give in. Keep your heart and mind wide-open.
We’re rooting for you!
Danielle (and Jennifer)
Co-Founders, Natural Contents