A decade ago, well before Terry Walters was attracting tens of thousands of fans and culinary converts nationwide, she was entirely occupied by the role of worried and besieged mom.
Both of Terry’s young daughters had digestive issues. The oldest, Sarah, had been a colicky baby and when she started school had trouble focusing. The second child, Sydney, had constant diaper rash, and her face turned a fiery red whenever she ate, a condition that endured for three years during which some friends and neighbors in Avon thought it “cute” but Terry knew otherwise.
Tests showed that little Sydney couldn’t tolerate the most basic foods, including dairy products, bread and cereal, citrus, apples and beans. Terry herself had suffered complications after Sydney’s birth, gaining “a good amount of weight”—not something she was accustomed to.
It was time, Terry decided, to invest in her best teachers: instinct and experience—and her suspicion that the typical American diet is hazardous to health.
She’d actually gotten an earlier start down that road. In the late 1980s, when she was in college, Terry’s father suffered a heart attack, and she learned her own cholesterol level was high. The doctor wanted to put her on statins. But she refused pills, started running, and decided to learn everything she could about natural foods.
At first, she could find few appealing examples to follow. “Over the years I started buying ‘healthy’ cookbooks,” she told me, “but the food all tasted like sawdust. It was full of sugar and dairy. I started sautéing vegetables and brown rice, trying to connect healthy with tasting good.”
Later, when Terry’s children began to have health issues, it became clear to her there could be no backsliding. “It became even more important for me to teach them, to get them to eat right,” she said. “It was no longer about myself. As a young mom, I found that people were looking at me like I had three heads when I told them what we eat.
“I wasn’t going to open a box. No Kraft macaroni and cheese. No microwave. My youngest, Sydney, was eating seaweed and brown rice. I was making dinner with kale and collard greens. It was important they knew what a healthy diet was. I never said, ‘If you don’t like this, I’ll make you something empty and white.’”
The food that Terry served her children was also the food she served her husband, Chip, who, in support, weaned himself from meat and potatoes, as well Ben & Jerry’s.
In time, neighbors and friends with their own health issues began paying attention to Terry’s culinary art. “I started taking people to the grocery store and showing them what kale is, and they said, ‘Great, but what do you do with it?’” she said.
So she began teaching classes in her kitchen. “This kept me going—and focused,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘I can do this. I can heal my children and I can heal myself.’
“I’d make five recipes—only teaching dark leafy greens, legumes and whole grains,” she said, “and people started coming.” The demand grew to the point where students urged Terry to publish a cookbook.
She was concerned that she’d had no formal training as a chef. Her only other professional experience with food of any kind was after college, selling dog food for Ralston Purina.
Yet even that work inspired her because, as she found herself stocking shelves or removing damaged product from the back rooms of supermarkets, she could see the unsavory way some of the food was stored and handled. Images like this, and her own instincts, drove her. “I wanted to live my life with one definition of success,” she said, “not work and personal, but together.” So Terry decided to take a risk—to self-publish her own cookbook.
This was not an inexpensive undertaking. Self-publishing now has some more economical options, but back in 2007 a cookbook (with recipes such as rice noodles and peanut sauce rolled in nori, and sprouted quinoa tabouleh) would cost real money to produce.
The up-front cost was $25 per copy, or $75,000—all borrowed from Sarah’s and Sydney’s college fund. Terry’s father, who by then had become heart-healthy and a believer in her cooking, nevertheless counseled against the risk. “You should just become a performance artist and recite the book,” he said. “You know it by heart.”
But Terry forged ahead, and found the ultimate outlay to be even higher. Her book’s designer had finished his work and the volume was about to go to press when a friend questioned the title, which was two words as one, InSeason. “What’s the book really about?” her friend asked. Terry replied, “It’s not really about organic food—that’s a choice. It’s about good, clean food.” And so was the new title: Clean Food. She had to pay a late fee for the changes, but it was worth it to the book’s bottom line.
“We took delivery of 3,000 books in my garage and sold most of them in six months,” Terry said. Some were peddled from the trunk of her car, others through local bookstores. At $40 apiece this more than restored the college funds. Indeed, it soon attracted an array of publishers who wanted part of the action.
When Sterling Publishing put out an expanded edition of the original Clean Food in September 2009, “I couldn’t believe my recipes with ume plum vinegar, mirin and kombu— my alternative way of cooking—were going into the mainstream,” she told me. But within the month, Clean Food was on the Wall Street Journal best-seller list. Another book, Clean Start, was published in 2010, and there’s a third in the works, Eat Clean, Live Well.
In addition to royalties, Terry regularly receives fan mail from around the country. “Thank you, you changed my life”; and “I just wanted you to know I lost 35 pounds”; and “I love your books, you are a true inspiration.”
She is in demand on the lecture and teaching circuits, and gives seasonal tours at Whole Foods in West Hartford, guiding her flock through the various sections of the store.
And she is still, of course, taking care of Sarah, now 15, and Sydney, 12, who are both healthy and reasonably content with the family’s eating routine. I say “reasonably” because Terry confided that she’s not as rigid as she once was, and that the family sometimes goes out for dinner where a hamburger may turn up. An occasional straying is okay, she said.
A few weeks ago, I saw Terry Walters in action, as fans flocked around her cooking demonstration. They saw a woman who, at 46, owns a luminous smile and looks very fit—in the last few years, she has run marathons.
It was a late afternoon, I was hungry, and she was dishing out samples. Cool, I thought. Maybe a nice bacon-wrapped scallop. But I should have known better.
“What is that?” I asked, peering into her cast-iron skillet.
“It’s reconstituted figs with caramelized shallots, and a touch of orange juice and zest,” she said.
“Ah, yes, just what I was looking for,” I replied. I tasted one and found out what I had been missing, though I never knew it.
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