Big Macro 

Macrobiotic cuisine is low-fat, whole-grain, and exquisitely subtle.

These days, Barbara Johnston-Brown can't stand eating in ordinary restaurants. Their dishes are so highly seasoned and suffused with fats that "I can feel it in my system for days afterwards," shudders the former nurse turned macrobiotic cooking teacher, who will present a workshop in the kitchen at Willard Middle School (2425 Stuart St., Berkeley) on Saturday, November 14.

Co-taught with longtime macrobiotics expert Susanne Jensen, who is head chef at Lake Tahoe's French Meadows Macrobiotic Summer Camp, the hands-on "Organic Bounty of Fall Harvest Favorites" class includes such dishes as seitan-stuffed squash, wild rice-chestnut pilaf, and pumpkin pie with almond cream.

Hailed for its health-giving properties since ancient times but popularized in this country during the 1950s by Japanese proponents George Ohsawa and Michio Kushi, the macrobiotic diet focuses on whole grains, legumes, fermented soy products, seaweeds, vegetables, and fruits, all locally sourced.

While working as a critical-care nurse for fifteen years at San Rafael's Kaiser and other Bay Area hospitals, Johnston-Brown began having serious doubts about conventional medicine: "I started to believe that there was so much that could be done that was less harmful than what was being done in hospitals," says the Walnut Creek resident. During business trips to Asia with her environmental-engineer husband, she learned about alternate modalities such as acupuncture, shiatsu, herbal medicine, and the merits of local, seasonal, and organic foods: "Those felt right to me, and I had an instinct that there was even more to find." This instinct took on a life-or-death importance after Johnston-Brown's two sisters were diagnosed with breast cancer — and then, in 2005, she was diagnosed with it herself.

Certain that nutrition was an important key to healing, she urged her sisters to change their diets and stop eating fast food. But she was up against their doctors — who, she remembers, "insisted that it didn't matter what they ate." After both sisters passed away, her own diagnosis "was teaching me where I needed to go for my own journey."

Where she needed to go, it turned out, was on a cruise.

Dubbed "A Voyage to Well-Being," Florida-based Holistic Holiday at Sea features vegan, vegetarian, and macrobiotic meals along with hundreds of workshops in yoga, massage, and more. It was there that Johnston-Brown, already an avid and semiprofessional cook and baker, adopted the vegan-macrobiotic lifestyle and never looked back. These days she uses only whole grains, mills her own flours, grows her own vegetables — kale, daikon, celery, collard greens, radishes, artichokes, and more — and makes her own pickles with umeboshi vinegar. If she doesn't eat collards at least three times a week — steamed, sautéed with walnuts or lemon zest, in tamari-spiked chickpea soup — she feels as if she's missing out.

"With food, you need to listen to your body," she says. "It knows what it wants." 11 a.m., $60. For more information, call Johnston-Brown at 925-286-1395 or e-mail her at

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