Nearly every Monday night a room at Palo Alto's First Baptist Church in Old Palo Alto is transformed into a healthy-eating sanctuary and a gathering place for neighbors and friends who bond over macrobiotic and vegan cooking.
As many as 90 to 120 people flock to the church to share or take home the Peninsula Macrobiotic Community's Macro Chef Monday Night Dinner, which is prepared by professional chef Gary Alinder of Vallejo. The group has come together weekly for 23 years.
The dinners were started by "a group of people who just really wanted to eat well, so they hired a chef," said Patricia Becker, former manager of the Monday night dinners.
Many long-term friendships have developed through the dinners, attendees say. Aficionados range from newborns to grandparents and regulars to first-timers.
For Sky Ann McGrath, the draw is simply an interest in having a good meal in good company, she said. McGrath's husband introduced her to the macrobiotic way of eating and used to cook meals for the two of them until he passed away.
"The chefs cook just like my husband used to," she said.
It was love at first sight for Ilona Pollak, who was introduced to the dinners by a friend in hopes of curing her chronic stomach ache. (It did.)
"I loved the community aspect, loved the lectures, loved all the people," Pollak said. She currently manages the dinners.
The word "macrobiotics" comes from the Greek roots "macro," meaning large or long, and "bios," which means life. A long life is exactly what consumers of macrobiotics hope for, according to Becker.
The theory is simple: Eat in accordance with nature. In practice that means strive for variety and eat lots of whole grains, organic foods and only those fruits and vegetables that are grown locally and currently in season.
On Monday, guest chef Chuck Collison prepared cream of summer squash soup; quinoa pilaf with cumin-scented shiitake sauce; corn, basil and olive tofu tart; broccoli with rosemary-caper dressing; fresh salad greens with strawberry vinaigrette; blueberry crunch bars and mint tea. Each week during the summer a different chef has taken the helm while Alinder is out of town.
After dinner, there are lectures, usually on macrobiotic or health-related topics and given by macrobiotic counselors, doctors, cooking teachers and people who have dealt successfully with diseases using macrobiotic or similar approaches. Events have included performances by folk singers and vegetarian Chinese acrobats.
Janet and Jeff Rulifson are regulars at the multi-course dinners. The Rulifsons have been attending for six months, ever since they decided to become vegans. Both have seen considerable health benefits such as diminished allergies and weight loss -- and for Jeff Rulifson, lowered cholesterol, they said.
"In general we just know that we feel a whole lot better," Janet Rulifson said.
Karen Kramer became acquainted with macrobiotics and the possibilities of vegan eating through her 11-year-old son, Grant Kramer-Weis. Now, the two attend the dinners every week when they're in town, she said.
Grant spent his early years on an almost constant slew of antibiotics because he suffers from an immune deficiency.
"He was on antibiotics 13 times in his first year of life," Kramer said.
Grant explained the difficult, early years.
"My mom kept bringing me to doctors and asking if there was a way they could cure my health problems, but they said there was nothing they could do," he said. The family met a doctor who told them changing Grant's diet might be the solution. Now he feels much better thanks to his vegetarian and macrobiotic diet, he said.
Grant said he has been a vegetarian since before he could talk.
"Meat just grosses me out," he said.
Kramer recalled that Grant seemed to know what was good for him.
"He would hold his milk and look at me, smile and throw it in the garbage," she said.
Information about the Peninsula Macrobiotic Community is available at macrochef.org.