A debt of gratitude to Paul Talalay, a Baltimore resident and broccoli researcher, who died earlier this month at age 95. His life’s work had led to a discovery that gave credence to what my mother had tried so hard to teach me.
“Broccoli is good for you,” she’d say. My taste buds begged to differ. I wouldn’t be allowed to go outside and play unless I ate my broccoli. So, I’d sit at the dinner table gagging and making faces, seriously doubting that anything so nasty could be good for you.
Enter Talalay, who oversaw research that found in broccoli a chemical compound, sulforaphane, that could prevent cancer. Sulforaphane has since been shown to aid in the treatment of autism and diabetes.
Today, three months into eating a plant-based, whole-food diet, I can fully appreciate what Mom was trying to do some 60-plus years ago.
Talalay, long associated with Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, was an enzymologist and pharmacologist, a graduate of Yale Medical School who received a bachelor’s degree in molecular biophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mom graduated from Tuskegee Institute and taught typing and shorthand at my high school.
How did she know that broccoli was good for you?
Or, say, garlic? To hear her tell it, garlic was “Russian penicillin.” It helped prevent colds. In 2012, researchers at St. Joseph Family Medicine Residency in Mishawaka, Indiana, did a study that found — you guessed it — garlic helped prevent colds.
Tomatoes and beets were good for the blood, she said, and carrots could improve your eyesight. In 1998, two researchers at the University of Toronto reported that lycopene found in tomatoes could prevent cancer. And in other studies, beets and carrots also did as advertised.
Where did Mom’s insights come from? Her mother — and her grandmother before that, and on back to the family roots in West Africa.
“African people were more plant-based than animal-eaters,” said Danni McGhee, a nutrition coach, vegan chef and author of the book “Ready to Go Vegan?”
“As enslaved peoples, they brought that tradition with them to the Americas. My folks are from Jamaica, so for most of their childhood, they grew their own food and lived off the land, which is something our ancestors always did.”
McGhee owns a Washington nutrition education company, Dam Good Vegan (the name derives from her initials, Danni Adrienne McGhee). In her work, she has seen some encouraging changes.
“Just in Washington, D.C., more people are getting connected with what I call their indigenous roots,” she said. “So many urban farms are cropping up, and a lot of people are growing their own foods when the weather permits.”
I had lost that tradition to a microwave lifestyle.
Eschewing Mom’s admonition to eat my fruits and vegetables, that an “apple a day keeps the doctor away,” I’d opted for a processed-food diet. Junk food. Fast food. Fake food. Food made from animals pumped up with hormones to make them grow faster.
I grew faster, too. Ballooned up this past winter while guzzling eggnog and holiday cakes. I was oblivious to all the estrogen that gets into cow milk. The next thing I know, I’m getting man boobs.
Desperate to reverse the damage, I wrote a column last year asking for a tasty broccoli recipe. Readers responded with the most creative concoctions. The only problem was they all contained broccoli. But thank you anyway.
I also heard from Gwyn Whittaker, owner of GreenFare Organic Cafe in Herndon, Virginia. She claimed to have a way to get me back on a healthy eating track: a 21-day plant-based “Kickstart” program. No broccoli. At least not at first.
The pounds started melting away after the first week. By the end of the program, my blood pressure and cholesterol had been reduced. I was sleeping better. With more energy, I began to exercise. In no time, chest fat was being turned into muscle.
Some of the GreenFare meals I’d been eating had broccoli mixed in — sometimes hidden among the kale or spinach. I had not tasted it. No gagging. The sight of that would certainly have pleased Mom.
Pericles Silva, a nutritionist who manages the cafe, reminded me: “It’s not just what you eat. It’s what you don’t eat.” No more animals, no more dairy — especially eggnog.
Talalay, after his discovery about broccoli, also began a plant-based diet. He’d learned that consuming broccoli and other vegetables — including kale and watercress — helped the body create what a former student of his called a “molecular defense” against “environmental insults” that might cause cancer.
Mom would say, “Just eat it.”
Talalay died March 10 of congestive heart failure.
According to an obituary by The Washington Post’s Emily Langer, when Talalay began his research, he’d lament the difficulty of convening other scientists to discuss dietary means of preventing cancer. I’m sure my mother could empathize, given how she lamented over my revulsion to broccoli.
But they were both right — Talalay’s science confirming Mom’s generational wisdom.
And every now and then, I’ll eat a piece of broccoli without even knowing it.
Courtland Milloy writes for The Washington Post.