By Lisa Gosselin, "Giving Thanks,"November/December 2011
Thanksgiving dinner at chef Michel Nischan’s Connecticut home starts like this: As the brined heritage turkey rests and aromas of cornbread stuffing and celery root puree rise from the sideboard, there is a quiet moment at the table. “Usually, my five kids are home, plus their friends, and we go around the table, each talking about what we are thankful for. It can be big things or something as simple as my 13-year-old, Andrew, saying, ‘We don’t have school today,’” he says with a laugh.
For Nischan, there are many reasons to give thanks. Dressing Room, the Westport restaurant that he and the late actor Paul Newman launched in 2006, has been a steady success. Nischan has a regular gig on the diabetes cooking show dLife on CNBC. He has served the Dalai Lama and has won two James Beard Awards. But what is Michel Nischan most thankful for? The foundation he co-founded in 2007, Wholesome Wave, now has programs in 26 states allowing low-income families to get Double Value Coupons, doubling their federal food-benefit dollars when they shop for fresh produce at local farmers’ markets.
“Growing up in Illinois, we were poor, but both my parents were raised on farms so we had a garden and we always had fresh fruits and vegetables on our table,” says Nischan. “Sometimes we had two meals a day, sometimes we only had one, but my mom said we should always share with our neighbors and we did.”
Photo Credit: Joshua Paul Photography
Nischan’s mother taught him to eat well and cook well. “I knew what fresh tomatoes tasted like and I could pluck and fry a chicken blindfolded by the time I was 12,” he says. She also pushed him into getting his first job, cooking at a truck stop. “But when I finally became a chef and went out to find the local farms and the food I remembered from growing up, I couldn’t find them. The small farms were gone.” While all of Nischan’s efforts have focused on healthy, often organic, local cuisine, he quickly realized that “if every white-tablecloth restaurant went farm to table, it would be a drop in the bucket” in terms of supporting independent farmers.
It was about the same time that his son Chris, then age 5, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. “I had always been health-conscious,” Nischan says, “but after first Chris, and then my youngest son, Ethan, became diabetic, I learned a lot about nutrition and how much a diet loaded with produce could help us manage this and reduce risks of all sorts of other diseases.”
“That’s when we latched onto the SNAP program” (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), a.k.a. government-issued food stamps. Nischan realized that if just 5 percent of the then $33 billion (currently $64 billion) the government spent on food stamps went to buying local produce, it could have a big impact.
In addition to the Double Value Coupons, Wholesome Wave launched a pilot Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program in Massachusetts, Maine and California this past year whereby doctors can actually prescribe fruits and vegetables to patients in need who are at risk for chronic diseases. The prescription gets redeemed for food vouchers that can then be used to buy fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets.
At home, Nischan’s own cooking is a recipe for health. “I use lots of vegetables and whole grains. I’ve learned a lot about diabetes and cook with foods that are lower on the glycemic index.” Some of Nischan’s Thanksgiving recipes, on the following pages, are a good example. “The celery root puree is much lower on the glycemic index than your typical potato dish,” Nischan points out. And all of his recipes celebrate the harvest. His cornbread stuffing is loaded with vegetables and, for dessert, his easy crisp is full of ripe pears and apples.
It’s a meal worth celebrating.