With the ethereal sounds of a young all-female a capella choir caroling in the background, families, couples, singles and seniors ate a rainbow selection of Thanksgiving-themed vegan dishes hosted by the Peninsula Macrobiotic Community on Monday. At each weekly Meat-Free Monday soiree, the nonprofit organization aims to educate the community about living a healthy lifestyle in a lighthearted and social atmosphere at the First Baptist Church in Palo Alto.
As the president and co-founder of the Peninsula Macrobiotic Community, Ken Becker has witnessed an eclectic variety of entertainment at each dinner during the past 28 years, ranging from Chinese acrobats to karaoke; but Becker attributes the actual success of the program to the people who attend each week and spread the word.
"It's the community of people getting together with a common purpose," Becker said. "Some people aren't even vegetarians. ... People like to get together and have conversations. It's a real community experience. It's just the energy from the community that just sort of keeps it going."
Becker joked that he had co-founded the organization with a sly intention, "to get somebody to cook for (him)!"
"There (was) a group of people who were interested in this type of eating and learning about health," he said. "There was a group in San Francisco that we went to, and thought, 'Why can't we bring that down to the Peninsula?'"
When Patricia Joy Becker isn't busy teaching yoga classes or testing vegan recipes for her website, she coordinates the organization's events, organizes the marketing for the group and assists the team in serving dinner. At each event, she can be seen warmly greeting each guest, giving hugs to the event's regulars, scooping sauces from beach-ball sized bins onto the plates of hungry patrons or even introducing singles to one another in hopes of forming friendships. As a maven of the macrobiotic lifestyle for more than 30 years, she noted that these dinners have become the highlight of her week.
Inspired by her own road to better health since switching to a macrobiotic lifestyle, Patricia also offers nutrition counseling, along with meal ideas, tools and tricks for newbies to meat-free living. Although a balance of flavors is the winning combination to any extravagant meal, she summarized that a flavorful sauce is the No. 1 crucial trick when formulating a satisfying vegan or vegetarian meal. This notion informs each menu item created and served by the organization.
There is no shortage of flavor at these dinners. The recipes are built around season-appropriate produce, and accentuated with the umami flavors of mushrooms, caramelized onions, sea vegetables or tamari sauce. Umami, or the savory fifth taste, is a key factor in these meals, because it lends an unctuous, rich "meaty" flavor without actually having to add any meat derivatives. The proof was in the sound of spoons scraping across the bottoms of bowls.
Chefs Gary Alinder, Travis Bench and James Holloway lead the kitchen in incorporating Thanksgiving and fall season-appropriate flavors with a few surprising twists. A traditional fall favorite of butternut squash soup featured additions of ginger and miso paste to add substance, piquancy and depth of flavor. Other items on the menu were a wild rice and quinoa pilaf with mushroom gravy, mixed green salad with citrus vinaigrette, whole wheat bread and crackers, cranberry sauce, mashed sweet potatoes, corn and caramelized onion frittata, sauteed green beans with toasted almonds and a maple spice cake with tofu whipped cream.
As a kitchen member with the Peninsula Macrobiotic Community for 17 years, Central Oregon-native James Holloway has worked his way up from volunteer to chef. His greatest takeaway from the program is the praise he receives at the end of each event.
"You know what makes me feel good? I've already heard it a few times tonight; 'That frittata was great. James, you make good food!' That's all I need," Holloway explained. "I put a lot of time into it, and I enjoy it."
"He knows how to hit that flavor," said Travis Bench, describing Holloway's wise palate and intuitive cooking skills. "You know, when you're cooking and you get deep into a dish but there's that something ... he knows what to add."
Bench, who was vocal about his enthusiasm for vegan cuisine, could be heard at the event praising the kitchen staff for their efforts.
"Man, that maple cake with the tofu whipped cream, ... you had to pull me away from that! So good!" Bench exclaimed at the end of the event.
As the evening drew to a close, Patricia kicked up her heels to send off each guest with a hug and a "thank-you" for attending the event.
To those who may be flirting with the idea of a meat-free lifestyle, Patricia said, "Have fun with it. Don't take it too seriously."
What: Monday Vegetarian Dinners
When: Mondays at 6:30 p.m.
Where: First Baptist Church, 305 N. California Ave., Palo Alto
Info: Monday Vegetarian Dinners or 650-599-3320