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Yin-Yang Can Cook

Think vegetarians have it hard? Imagine what life is like for macrobiotic eaters, who finally have a place of their own in Palo Alto.

By Vrinda Normand

AS A LIFELONG vegetarian, I know that meat-free doesn't always imply healthy eating. White bread, processed snack foods and candy bars can all sneak into an herbivore's diet. But macrobiotic living takes vegetarianism and veganism a step further. It may sound like a clinical term, but macrobiotic actually means "great life." It stems from Asian philosophy that considers a balanced diet the basis for health and happiness. Such a regimen includes whole grains, seasonal produce and little or no animal foods.

Although this makes dining out even more challenging, chef Gary Alinder has helped make a home for local followers of this lifestyle. Every Monday, as it has for the past 18 years, the Peninsula Macrobiotic Community hosts a vegan dinner at the Palo Alto Baptist Church.

The church is nestled in a storybook neighborhood. Inside the dimly lit hall, an oddly familiar summer-camp scene unfolds: volunteers setting up tables and folding chairs, and arranging wash bins for do-it-yourself cleanup.

In a small kitchen by the dining area, Alinder prepares the meal that 60 people will share. He chops mounds of kale that will go into the potato soup last, in order to stay crunchy. As a hearty smell emanates from the oven, Alinder explains the deeper meaning behind this earth-friendly food.

Sitting down to a macrobiotic meal, he says, may put you in touch with your yin and yang, the opposing cosmic forces that stem from ancient Chinese and Japanese tradition. He achieves a balance between the two with the night's menu: beans and quinoa (rich with yang or grounding energy) complemented by a green leaf salad and light potato kale soup (which hold yin, or expansive energy).

The meal also includes a colorful side of purple pickled onions, and for dessert, large peanut butter cookies with chunks of dried fruit. Alinder says the main challenge is in making things taste good without a lot of fat; to compensate he gets creative with different types of broths.

Considering the quality of the ingredients the and artful way they are prepared, $13 for this dinner is a great deal. Ken Becker, who started the weekly, nonprofit function in 1987, says his group barely recovers costs. But he says the main purpose is to provide more people with a resource for healthy eating.

On a recent Monday night, he seems to have realized his goal. Regulars and newcomers start drifting in the door at 6:30 p.m. One volunteer, an elderly woman named Jane Kos, says about half of the diners know each other. The warm welcome she and other organizers give to first-timers, though, feels more like joining a support group than trying out a new restaurant.

Dinner manager Ilona Pollak gushes an enthusiastic hello to two young women and offers a few tips about the high-fiber meal they are about to eat. "Remember to chew very well," she says, "And it's a lot of food, so take your time."

From the healthy glow on Pollak's tanned skin, macrobiotic living seems to be treating her well. Her smile widens as she spots a friend arriving. "Hi, sweetheart. How are you?" she croons.

The sweetheart, otherwise known as Katherine Bliss, says Monday nights are the way she "resets her nutritional computer." Her control falters during the rest of the week, but she stays positive. "I think if I keep coming and looking at the menus, I'll just get it by osmosis or something," she says.

After everyone is seated, a volunteer determines the order in which each table will visit the buffet. We start with the soup, which is more watery than I would like but pleasantly infused with the freshness of celery, kale and miso.

Next come the staples of a grain-based diet. The stew, made with large cranberry beans, hominy (which looks like mutant kernels of corn), cauliflower and crispy green beans, boasts satisfying textures and an aromatic base of tomato, onion and garlic. The fluffy mound of quinoa is bland, but comes to life when sprinkled with some toasted sesame powder, which is fortunate because it's the only condiment available.

The salad is a simple mix of dark greens and fresh tomato, bearing a translucent coat of dressing. The pickled onions add a pungent kick to the combo. I found the main meal both familiar and loaded with exciting flavors. I was only disappointed when the peanut butter cookies failed to meet the standards of my sweet tooth (although they would have made fine snack bars).

I can see why many of the regulars keep coming back. Even macrobiotic diners need a place of their own.

The Peninsula Macrobiotic Community will be celebrating its 18th anniversary on May 9 with an extra-gourmet meal and comedy performance. For more information, visit www.peninsulamacro.org. Palo Alto Baptist Church is located at 305 N. California Ave in Palo Alto. Reservations are required by 9:30am on Monday (650) 599-3320. Dinners start at 6:30pm.

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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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