WINSTED — When one hears that Ralph Nader, the consumer activist extraordinaire and former presidential candidate who has battled some of the biggest corporations in the world, has authored a cookbook you might think, “Is Ralph going soft on us?”
Well, not exactly. While the Winsted native’s “The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook, Classic Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond” is a far cry from his groundbreaking 1966 “Unsafe at Any Speed” that successfully took on the United States automobile industry and eventually stopped car companies from putting profits over consumer safety, it nonetheless is both a charming cookbook with a socially-conscious caveat.
Nader’s cookbook is many things: it is an homage to his mother and her love of simple cooking that her family enjoyed around the kitchen table; a delightful and colorful examination (filled with recipes) of the Lebanese culinary tradition that immigrants to the United States carried with them to a new land; and an endorsement of good eating, cooking with simple, fresh ingredients that Nader hopes will continue to open many individuals’ minds about obesity and the role processed foods play in this national, indeed, global health crises.
Nader’s appreciation of food began at an early age when his parents, Rose and Natra, owned an eatery, bakery and delicatessen called the Highland Arms Restaurant in Winsted. The family frowned on processed goods and ate only a moderate amount of lean red meat. Interestingly, the Mediterranean diet is now considered one of the healthiest in the world. What was key to Nader’s love and understating of Lebanese dishes and their nutritional value was that his mother took the time to discuss and explain the food she prepared, using the family’s meals to connect her children to the traditions of their ancestors. The lessons clearly stuck with young Ralph.
Nader, in the introduction to the cookbook, tells an amusing story of a discussion he had with his mother after he had balked at a certain dish. He wrote, “Ralph when you say `I don’t like or I don’t want to eat something` who is ‘I’?” His mother quickly explained to her son that “ ‘I’ is your tongue, which you have turned against your brain. Now, eat and grow healthy,” which the dutiful son did, “looking forward to the tasty meal coming after” certain appetizers he at first balked at.
“I’m pleased that Mediterranean food has become one of the popular healthy lifestyle choices people are making,” said Nader, now 86 and feisty and trim as ever. He is living and working in Winsted during the COVID-19 health crisis. “It’s a cuisine that’s low in sugar, salt and fat and heavy on vegetables and fruits. It is very diversified. My mother used to espouse using your own fresh ingredients and having fun. And she showed how a meal didn’t have to be expensive.”
Nader believes that to be faithful to the recipes contained with the cookbook, photos for which were shot at the very popular Lebanese/Mediterranean restaurant on Winsted’s Main Street, Noujaim’s Bistro, the meals should be made from scratch. “You can’t get a plastic container of mashed potatoes and warm it up or use canned foods, vegetable and fruit.” He mentioned that some of the ingredients for Lebanese food can be at times difficult to find in major chain supermarkets, although health food stores and some supermarkets stock the ethnic food ingredients that can be used in the recipes.
Nader enjoys cooking but doesn’t go in much for “fancy cuisine.” I enjoy all kinds of lentils, onions, rice, whether it is soup or other main dishes. Garlic is a main ingredient in a lot of Lebanese food.” The recipes contained within the cookbook are quite easy to prepare and demand little time so as not to take away from family interaction in the kitchen and to quickly feed hungry appetites. The cookbook has won rave reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, talk show host Phil Donahue, Marlo Thomas, and author Patti Smith, who called the book, “A wonderful blend of consumer protection and consumer pleasure.”
The 104-page cookbook dropped in early April and can be found online and in various book stores (once they reopen). It was produced by Akashic Books of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Nader said it was fun pulling the book together and views it as a statement of the benefits of healthy, simple foods that eschew processed food, especially “junk or fast food” that so many Americans partake in. “Fast food, as well as drinks such as soda, are loaded with sugar and have caused all kinds of problems in this country, from high blood pressure to obesity and diabetes. It starts with the kids and sticks with them into adulthood. On a positive note, a good portion of the population has turned to dramatically changing its diet.”
The cookbook offers up recipes ranging from appetizers such as hummus bi tahini and baba ghanoush, soups like the simply delicious garlic soup, salads, including the popular tabouleh, main dishes such as Sheik al-Mahshi (baked eggplant stuffed with lamb and pine nuts) and baked fish with spices and tahini-based tarator sauce, vegetables like the sumptuous steamed broccoli with garlic, lemon and olive oil, and mouth watering desserts, which the Nader kids always waited for, like ma’mool (pastry with crushed pistachio nuts) and macaroon kashab (glazed sesame seed macaroons).
Oh, about those pine nuts that to appear in many Lebanese dishes. Nader said, “We use them because they are native to Lebanon and make for a tasty and healthy ingredient. We also used a lot of lamb because it was inexpensive and vegetables such as eggplant, cabbage and even grape leaves,” the latter stuffed with lamb and rice or vegetarian filling.
Chef George Noujaim (Nader has often enjoyed a meal at his Winsted eatery), cooked the meals depicted and contributed several recipes; Mediterranean eggplant and his famed garlic soup. In addition to his parents, Nader also credited his aunt Angela B. Mokhiber, “who cooked wonderfully wholesome foods for us when we visited”; his sisters, Claire and Laure; his nephew Terek Milleron; and Chef Noujaim, for taking Lebanese cooking to an art form.
For more information or to order a copy, visit www.akaschicbooks.com.