The end of 2014 is upon us. As we take an opportunity to relax, celebrate and indulge a craving here and there, the idea of a new year promises a fresh start. A time to reaffirm. A time for resolutions. Change, big or small, takes effort. And the ways we choose to implement change sometimes determine whether we stick with it or abandon our new endeavors by January 5th.
If cleaning up your diet is one of your New Year’s Resolutions, Melissa Joulwan’s paleo cookbooks, Well Fed and Well Fed 2, will show you interesting and delicious ways to incorporate that change. But there are more reasons Melissa is an inspiration for your own resolutions.
She is an entrepreneur. Between her books, blog and other projects, she was able to ditch her corporate day job and pursue her own ambitions.
She does what works…for her. Through years of trial and error she has found balance with food and exercise. Instead of following a prescribed set of rules, she pays attention to her body’s response and acts accordingly.
She tries to be the best version of herself – everyday.
True Barbellion: How did you discover Paleo?
Melissa Joulwan: I started for the girliest of reasons: I wanted to lose some body fat. But to really understand why I eat paleo now, you have to roll all the way back…
From grade school to the day I graduated from college, I was a chubby nerd. My parents are both exceptionally good cooks—my dad brought his restaurant training home and my mom won almost every cooking contest that she entered. By the time I was about eight, I was wearing Sears “Pretty Plus” jeans. My overweight state was mostly because I really liked food but also because I really didn’t like to sweat.
For most of my life, I was haunted by a deep desire to be different than I was. To be thin. To feel confident.”
To break the cycle of thinking of food—and my behavior—as “good” or “bad.” I joined Weight Watchers and eventually became a Lifetime Member with a weight loss of more than 50 pounds. I joined a CrossFit gym and learned to love being intimidated by my workouts. I developed a deep affection for lifting barbells. But despite my successes, it was still my habit to celebrate and to grieve and to stress out and to relax with food. Although I worked out regularly, I didn’t feel as strong, inside or out, as I wanted. I had insomnia, allergies, and stomach aches. My body didn’t feel like it belonged to me.
In 2008, I learned I had a nodule on my thyroid. The risk of cancer was high, so I had the nodule surgically removed, and the doctor hoped that the remaining half of my thyroid would continue to function. It held on for a few months but then stopped working. That was a very difficult time. It was like constantly having a case of the blues; I was sluggish, foggy-headed, and desperately worried about re-gaining all the weight that I’d worked so hard to lose.
Then I found Whole9 and the Whole30 and their unique approach to paleo. It was surprisingly easy for me to give up grains, despite my deep affection for toast, but saying goodbye to my standard breakfast of blueberries with milk almost pushed me to the edge. I did not approach the paleo rules with an open heart. But I committed. I followed the eating guidelines. I made it a project to get eight hours of sleep every night. I worked with my doctor to try to find the right doses for my thyroid hormones. I was on track with my nutrition, but my training was all wrong for a girl with no thyroid. The constant physical stress of my sometimes twice-a-day workouts and beat-the-clock CrossFit—without restorative activities like yoga, meditation, and walking to balance it out—took its toll. I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue.
So I started over…again.
My routine now includes daily meditation, gentle yoga classes, walking, strength training, and high-intensity interval training for 10 minutes max. What’s never wavered is my commitment to and affection for my paleo diet. I’ve been through a lot of self-experimentation in the last half decade to get back to optimal health. The solid foundation provided by the paleo diet makes it possible to measure other health and quality of life markers and tinker with them. After five years, I’m more convinced than ever that this is the healthiest way for me to feed my body and mind—and it is sustainable in a way that no other “diet” has ever been.
TB: When did your passion for cooking began?
MJ: I come from a family of cooks! My grandfather, aunt, and dad all owned restaurants when I was growing up — and my mom won just about every cooking contest she entered. Food is a Big Thing in my family. I think this best summarizes the place food plays for us: Our favorite breakfast topic is what we’re going to have for dinner.
My family is a mini melting pot. My dad’s side is Lebanese and Dutch; Mom’s heritage is Italian and Slovak. That means as soon as I could reach the stove, I was learning how to make Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves and Italian Meat Sauce. My grandfather owned one of those beautiful stainless steel diners from the fifties, and my dad ran The Country Squire Restaurant, a combination coffee shop, formal dining room, and motel. I learned my way around a spice rack at the same time I learned the alphabet. My family ate stuff, like plantains that none of my friends had ever tried, and “international cuisine” was our home cooking.
My family is happiest together in the kitchen, one of us chopping parsley or mincing garlic, another one manning the stove, and all of us talking over each other, giving order, and trash talking. There’s a feature of my cookbooks called “You Know How You Could Do That?” directly inspired by my family. When we eat in a restaurant, we try the food, then we say, “It’s really good, but… you know how you could do that?” After that, it’s a free-for-all of ideas that build on the chef’s starting point.
TB: Why did you decide to write a cookbook?
MJ: Two factors came together at just the right time: the recipes on my blog were becoming quite popular, and my husband and I were looking for jobs that would allow us to be geographically independent so we could travel more and work less.
We originally thought we’d do a PDF eBook and make a little vacation money or something. But then we did a reader survey. Overwhelmingly, readers said they wanted a print book, and they wanted a photo with every recipe. So we revised our game plan and decided to jump in with both feet. I pulled some recipes from my site archive, but I also developed a bunch of new ones. Dave polished up his photography skills. We researched self-publishing options, and then we worked really hard for about a year to make it happen. I was still at my full-time, corporate job, so I did recipe testing at dinner and we shot photos on the weekends. It was kind of crazy but also really fun to work on it together. And, ultimately, it was very rewarding.
TB: What did you enjoy most about writing your cookbook?
MJ: I really enjoy putting together the headnotes: the little stories at the top of each recipe. I don’t eat anything “just because.” It has to inspire me somehow. When I’m at home, throwing ingredients together, I usually make up stories to go along with them: “This is what I would eat if I was playing backgammon by the Adriatic Sea,” when I make Greek food or “I wish I could go hunting vampires in Budapest,” while making pork stew. I have a very active imagination and finding ways to work that silliness into the cookbook was really fun.
TB: What was different about writing your second cookbook?
MJ: It was harder! When we did the first one, we had zero expectations of success — and it had sold about 80,000 copies by the time we started the second book. I was super nervous about Well Fed 2. It was composed almost entirely of new recipes, so there was a lot more work, and we wanted to up our game, too. We knew it had to be bigger and better. I had a few sleepless nights, but I think it’s even better than the first one. The “Burgers Balls and Bangers” section is my favorite! I really love meatballs because they’re easy, fast, very tasty, and portable — plus they freeze great. I’m all about lazy cooking. Make a ton now, enjoy it for a loooooong time.
TB: You have created so many amazing recipes. Which one is your favorite?
MJ: When we travel, I always make a double batch of Chocolate Chili (from Well Fed) and put it in the freezer so I can just defrost it and reheat it when we get home. So that’s pretty close to the top of the list. And whenever I make the Zingy Ginger Dressing from Well Fed 2, I eat it like an animal while saying, “Do other people know how good this is?” I am my own favorite cook. Ha! And I think it’s important for people to know that we eat almost exclusively from our cookbooks. This is the food we eat everyday; it’s not just for a book. It’s our real life.
TB: Which recipe(s) would you recommend for someone who is new to cooking?
MJ: There’s a simple formula for making Hot Plates in Well Fed that I think is really helpful for people without a lot of experience in the kitchen. Chocolate Chili (Well Fed), West African Chicken Stew (Well Fed 2), and Pina Colada Chicken (Well Fed 2) are all favorites that are easy. But honestly, none of my recipes include complicated cooking techniques, and I go a little overboard in my instructions so even newbie cooks will be successful. The ingredients lists can be long because I like spices, but none of the recipes are hard to make.
TB: What would you recommend taking to a CrossFit party?
MJ: Citrus Cartnitas and Jicama Potato Salad from Well Fed, raw veggies with some of the dips from Well Fed 2, and a big fruit crisp for dessert (Well Fed).
TB: You’ve lived in Austin, TX and Prague is your favorite city. Has that influenced your cooking at all?
MJ: I think my travels everywhere influence my cooking. I had an eggplant soup at a little restaurant in Philadelphia while visiting my family that inspired the Silky Gingered Zucchini Soup in Well Fed 2. Austin’s Tex-Mex scene definitely drove me to develop my Citrus Carnitas and Machacadao and Eggs. I made the Czech Meatballs in Well Fed after visiting Prague, and the Old School Italian Meat Sauce in Well Fed 2 is a nod to the Italian families I knew in Syracuse when I went to college there. I collect flavors and recipe ideas the way other people pick up souvenirs in gift shops.
TB: Any new projects on the horizon?
MJ: I’ve been collecting recipe ideas for the third cookbook in the Well Fed series, which is really fun. I have a new collaboration with Quarterly — I pick out paleo lifestyle products that are sent to subscribers four times a year. That’s been really fun because I get to introduce poeple to cool stuff I like AND Dave and I always collaborate on an illustrated letter and recipe that I develop exclusively for the Quarterly box. I also write a column for every issue of Paleo Magazine with the history of a traditional international recipe, then I update the recipe to comply with paleo guidelines. I have some really good ones picked out for 2015! And… we’re working on a super-secret project… ssssshhhhhh.