Watch our challah baking video!
I'm thrilled to be here today with Beth Ricanati, MD, who is a physician who built her medical practice around bringing wellness into everyday life, especially for busy women juggling work, children, and their relationships. I don’t know anyone like that. [laughs] Beth is the author of Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs, which is a memoir/cookbook about her own quest for wellness. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in art history, Beth earned her medical degree from Case Western Reserve University of Medicine. She trained in New York City at Columbia Presbyterian, Columbia Center for Women’s Health, and the Women’s Health Center at the Cleveland Clinic. She currently lives in Santa Monica, right about here, with her husband and children where she brings wellness to women wherever she goes. Her website is HouseCallsForWellness.com. Her book is available for purchase on Amazon and wherever you find books. Welcome back.
Beth Ricanati: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here this morning.
Zibby: Thanks for doing the double podcast and filming. This is a new, little, hybrid experiment. Thank you for taking part while our challah is raising in the backyard, which was so fun to have made it with you this morning.
In the introduction of Braided, you tell readers that you’ve been baking challah almost every Friday for ten years. In the book you answer the question “Why?” right away. You say, “Because countless demands on my time and energy overwhelmed me. Because as a physician, I know all too well that stress like this makes us sick, not just theoretically sick, but actually sick. Because I learned I could change this pattern.” Then you say, “This book is a recipe on how to make the bread and take the time you need to be truly well.”
That was a long way of asking, can you explain how baking challah can actually make people feel well, both emotionally and physically?
Beth: Yes. What I learned when I was making challah -- it’s not the reason I started to make it necessarily -- but what I learned having now done this for ten years, is that it’s a moment in time every Friday that I can take to just stop, to just stop and be present with all the ingredients as we did this morning. When your hands are in a bowl of flour, you can't be emailing. You can't be running the list of things to do. You're here. You're present. For me, I have found that is the best antidote for stress.
Zibby: Stress, of course, causes medical issues such as?
Beth: Heart diseases, diabetes, cancer, you name it. Almost every illness I can think of is exacerbated by stress.
Zibby: So it’s important to get it under control? [laughs]
Beth: It’s a big deal. With seventy-five percent of all chronic disease lifestyle driven, food exercise, stress, etc., it matters.
Zibby: Early on you cite the loss of your high school friend Meredith as a shaping event in your life, naturally. I was wondering how that and other losses, including the losses of many of your patients and your fellow mom friend Sherri, have made you want to live your life more to the fullest now? You actually said about Sherri who had kids your kids ages -- that piece hit home so much for me, especially at this age of having young kids -- “She died much too young. She is no longer able to get up in the middle of the night if one of her children awakes. To this day, every single time a child wakes me up in the middle of the night and I know that I’ll be ruined with fatigue the next day, I think of Sherri who doesn't have this opportunity anymore, and it touches me every single time.” So beautiful.
Tell me how these losses of yours have shaped your life and your pursuit of wellness and happiness.
Beth: I realized, ultimately, that we have a choice. We can go through our daily activity mindlessly, or we can live with more intention. I have had loss in my life. When that happens, it’s a really poignant reminder that I have this choice. I can make a different choice. I can be more mindful. I do think that my mom friend -- when the kids, thankfully now they’re older, and they're not getting up as much. It really is incredible. I think about her when I'm up in the middle of the night. I think about her as a mom. I think about her kids who can't go to her during the night. I'm choosing to be more intentional because they're not here. It’s almost like it’s a way to honor them and honor their life and their memory.
Zibby: I like how you say in the book, and as you did this morning, that each time you make challah you say it merit of someone or in honor of someone. I feel like these people in your life, and I have lost people as well, it’s nice to have a way to remember them on a weekly basis in a formalized way like that.
Beth: It’s so important to do that. When you put it out there in the universe, it brings it home in a way that it may not otherwise.
Zibby: You wrote your first cookbook for the blind when you were fifteen years old. That's a crazy story. Let me hear it. What happened? How did that come about?
Beth: I was in high school. The backstory to that is that when I was in elementary school, we read the story of Helen Keller. I was blown away by that. I wanted to learn braille, which I did at that time. Flash forward, now I'm in high school. I had been doing some volunteer work. We moved to Cleveland. At the Cleveland Society for the Blind, they had a mock kitchen. I was with some of the clients and watching and learning how they were learning how to navigate in the kitchen, and talking with them about the foods that they eat. Most of them were, because they couldn't see and because it was hard to navigate in the kitchen, foods like bologna and Wonder white bread and all these things that I didn’t think were so healthy and good for them, but they’re easy.
We were really fortunate that Stouffer’s is headquartered -- or was at that time -- headquartered nearby in Solon, Ohio. I was at a school that was also close by. I went to both the Sight Center within the Society of the Blind and to Stouffer’s, and wanted to modify all of their recipes into a new cookbook that would be in large print and braille so that at least if they were going to be using quick, easy, convenient food, at least they could have the vegetable lasagna, for example, as opposed to a bologna sandwich. It was a fun project. I worked on it during high school.
Zibby: That's amazing and a great segway into your new cookbook/memoir, which is amazing. You talk about eating disorders a little bit in the book and how you flirted with one for a little bit but avoided it. You also say you were very focused on your weight for years and that you could tell anyone what you weighed on various key days in your life from starting ninth grade to studying for college finals, falling in love for the first time, which when I was read, I was like “I totally know what I weighed at the beginning of high school. I totally know what I weighed when I fell in love.” I had those numbers in my head. Also, I relate when you said, “But fortunately, I could no longer you tell what I weigh now. Having children changed that for me. Overnight, I gained a new perspective.” I am also not getting on the scale anymore, which is probably not good.
How has having children changed the way you feel about your body?
Beth: It’s an incredible experience to, first, be pregnant. I was fortunate to have three children. I nursed them their first year and now take care of them. Two, when I was pregnant and then when I was nursing, to have to be really mindful of what I was eating for their health, it didn’t matter anymore about me. On a dime, it just didn’t matter, which was great. After I had them, it was this incredible realization of what we can do, what our bodies can do as women. We can bring these children into the world and nurture them and nourish them. Fortunately, it’s not an issue for me anymore as a result of that.
Zibby: Back to the book, you explain in detail how to actually make the challah, which is really helpful for anyone who wants to start out. Each chapter is very clear from -- great, detailed directions. You actually poke fun at yourself at one point about your reluctance to experiment with the recipe even though you say it’s forgiving. You say, “It’s not like I'm solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s just bread.”
How come you're afraid to experiment? Is this recipe the best? I know, at times, you have. What would make you more willing to do so?
Beth: I was never a baker. I was really nervous to mess with success. It worked. The first time, it worked. It is a really forgiving recipe that I talk about in the book. It worked. It was so great that I was afraid. I thought, “I don’t want to ruin it.” For a long time I didn’t touch it at all. I have recently started to try and manipulate it a little bit. I recently tried to make the dough the day before and put it in the refrigerator, which I had never done. I have friends who do that. They told me about it for years. I’ll throw in ingredients now that are -- at the new year, we had apples and honey. I didn’t do that for a long time. Again, I didn’t want to ruin it. Now, it’s okay. I find that extends to other things in life too where I may be really hesitant and do something different because if it works, I'm afraid to rock the boat. It’s okay. Trying things is a good thing.
Zibby: I know how you feel, like something's finally set.
Many times in the book you talk about how food is medicine. Obviously, we’ve heard this theory. Tell me your interpretation of that. How is food medicine?
Beth: I'm obsessed with using food as medicine. What we eat can really affect our health. It can affect our health in so many ways. For example, there's been a lot of research around cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, sauerkraut, brussels sprouts, kale, all of that. They can turn on and off genes in your body that can literally promote disease or treat disease. Cancer comes to mind. If you have breast cancer, colon cancer, any of that type of cancer and you eat more cruciferous vegetables, they have found it to help. Spices, I now cook a lot with turmeric, for example, because I like it, and the research shows that it’s such a powerful anti-inflammatory.
I think that’s so cool that what we eat today can help with our disease. Back to a comment I said earlier where chronic disease is seventy-five percent lifestyle driven. That's food, exercise, and stress management. I know, add in things like tobacco and sleep, but focusing on the first three, if what I eat can help protect or prevent or treat a disease, why wouldn't I try to do that? I talk about that with my patients. I talk about that with my kids. I’ll basically talk about that with anybody because I think it’s a really powerful concept.
Zibby: I feel like food, also, can make you so sick, not just the preventative but some of the corn syrup in some cases like with canned frosting that I occasionally think about putting on my kid’s cake. I'm like, “Oh, gosh. Why would I do this? This is not going to be good,” as I'm spooning it on.
When you’re talking about how long to knead the challah for -- which we did earlier today, which was so fun -- you’re asking people like me who were saying, “Exactly how long do I need to do this for?” You say, “How do you know? How do you know anything? You just know. You just know when it’s ready,” which I really liked. You have to trust yourself. I feel like you put that, a lot, in this recipe. How do you really know when it’s done? I saw when we made it a little bit.
Beth: The original recipe said to knead for ten minutes. Having never kneaded anything, I didn’t know how to knead. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Do I stop at ten minutes? Is that magical? Is it done in ten minutes? What I have found is you really do just know.
It’s how the dough feels. You don’t want it to be too sticky. You don’t want it to be rock hard. You’re looking for a consistency where it forms a nice ball and has a little give. I poke it, and it has a little give. Some weeks, I add more flour. Some weeks, I don’t. That's when I'm talking about how you just know. You have to go with the flow a little bit. How much effort are you putting into it? Maybe one week you’re pummeling it. One week you're being really gentle with it. It works.
Zibby: With kneading, we talked about this earlier, also, when we were baking the challah. You said, “I knead for my needs,” which is one of the best lines in your book. Knead, K-N-E-A-D for your needs. Tell me more about that and how it meets your needs.
Beth: I realized that, for me, spending the time making the dough is a way to be mindful. It’s my meditation. I don’t do a lot of other meditation, though I'm trying. It’s my time to work out whatever I need. Some weeks I spend five minutes kneading. Some weeks I spend more because things are different each week, and I need something more.
Zibby: How much do you think the community aspect of making challah helps? I know you said in your book about how you like to bake with other women. That's, in part, what inspired me to want to bake challah with you this morning. Why not make it? Here I am. It’s Friday morning. The light was perfect. [laughs]
Beth: The community aspect is probably one of the biggest lessons I've taken away from this whole experience because making challah, it builds community. It sustains community. It’s tremendous. I do try and make challah, now, with women. Some women are my dearest friends. They know I'm making challah. They come over. It’s a thing. Other times, I've never met the person, witness us this morning. I’ll go make challah with a group of women.
It’s tremendous to gather around a table and to get messy in a bowl full of dough. It’s an incredible thing. That is the aspect of building community. When I think about sustaining community, what gets me about this bread is the history. It has been made for thousands of years, which is super cool. It’s been made all over the world. We’re making bread here today in LA. There are people making bread in New York, and in Washington, and Chicago, and in Europe, and in Israel. That’s so great. It brings us all together a little bit more, which I love.
Zibby: I agree. It’s so nice. Tell me a little more about the process of your writing this book. You're a doctor. You’ve got three kids. You're busy. You're all over the place.
Now, suddenly you're writing a book. How did this come about? Take me through what happened.
Beth: About five years ago, I actually was working on another book. It didn’t work. It didn’t happen. I had spoken with a bunch of people about this. I had this story brewing in me, the challah story. We shifted gears completely. I put that book aside and started this book. I really wanted to share this story of not only my journey, but some of the lessons that I’ve learned and the history that I hadn’t appreciated at all about challah. I didn’t know that growing up. I wanted to talk about that and some of the health and wellness pieces. It all came together around this book that, it has some history. It has some food. It has some mom and medical around it.
Having never written a book and not knowing anything about that, I thought, “We’re going to do this during the calendar year.” The kids went back to school in August. I want to have a manuscript in June. The good news is, that happened. The longer, more difficult story is it was a painful year. First, I thought I’ll just write a memoir. I did. It wasn’t complete. It didn’t really work. Then I thought, it’s a cookbook. It’s about challah. I’ll write it as a cookbook. Well, there's one recipe. That doesn't make for a good cookbook. Then I thought, I'm a doctor. I’ll write a self-help book. Isn't that what doctors do? I restructured the whole thing. It was really boring to write. It was really boring to read. That didn’t work. What I finally realized was it’s all of that. It was really fun to take some of the memoir, and take some of the cookbook, and take some of the self-help, and pull it all together in the manuscript.
Zibby: That's what makes it so great to read. As a reader, I'm getting so much out of your book. Not to say it’s not just fun to read books. I can take away all these tangible, great pieces of advice both for my own -- like how to take care of myself, [indiscernible] wellness, the food aspect, the medical aspect. I can learn a recipe. It’s great. There's a lot of takeaways. It’s perfect. It’s a great book for moms and other busy people. It’s really great. You are a busy, generally, mom, still.
What are your tips, aside from making challah and reading this book of course, for moms to make room for wellness in their lives, even if they can't bake each week or they're not into challah?
Beth: It is absolutely essential to have a meaningful ritual in your life. It does not have to be baking at all. It can be gardening. It can be knitting. It can be salsa dancing, as someone just told me recently. It can be anything. It doesn’t matter. I also think that looking for the perfect thing is not, probably, the best way to go about it because you'll spend all your time looking for it.
As you're doing what you enjoy doing and realizing that we need to wrap self-care into our behavior -- it’s like when you get on an airplane and the stewardess or the steward says to you, when they're standing at the front of the plane before we take off, “In case of an emergency and the oxygen masks falls, be sure to put it on yourself first. Then, if you're travelling with small children or people that you help, then put it on them.” So often as busy, particularly moms, but all of us, we tend to take care of everybody else first. We forget. I forgot for a while -- was not in a great place -- that we have to take care of ourselves. Then, we can take care of everybody else. I don’t really care what you choose. I just want you make sure you have some form of self-care in your practice.
Zibby: I’ll try. [laughs] One other question about the book writing process. You spent the kid’s school year writing your book and making it all work. You ended up decided to self-publish.
Beth: It’s actually hybrid publishing. Let me explain the difference. I did want to do traditional publishing first. I thought that would be fantastic. We went down that path. It didn’t work out. It was such an interesting life lesson. I got the agent in New York. We pitched it in New York. It didn’t happen. I thought, “How did that happen?” [laughs] It didn’t happen. I put it away for a little while because it was really painful. I loved the book. I didn’t want to alter the book. I was going to have to alter the book if I was going to go that route.
Fortunately in the intervening time, publishing world has really changed. You can self-publish. Literally, today if you want to put a book up on Amazon, CreateSpace, you can do that, all the way through to traditional publishing. I did a lot of research. I was really fortunate to find a publisher that was in the middle. What I wanted was traditional distribution. I want the book out in the world. I want people like you to find it, which you did, which is so exciting. What I liked about this process was I could have a lot of control and a lot of say. We wound up changing the title. That wouldn't have happened had I been in a traditional path.
Zibby: What was it? Bake a Challah and Call me in the Morning?
Beth: Make Challah and Call Me in the Morning: A Physician’s Simple Recipe for Healthy Living. I was so set on that. Everyone around me was, “No. You have to change this.” I wouldn't for years. I held on to that for the next couple years. I thought that was the best thing, and it’s not. It’s not a great title. It took me a long time. In this process, I was able to change it, which was fantastic. It was late, late, late in the game. We actually had to redo the cover. It was a late change. I'm really grateful to have been on a publishing path that enabled, allowed me to have that flexibility.
Zibby: Do you have any advice? Let's say there's somebody else out there hoping to write some sort of a book that maybe doesn't fall in such a specific category. What advice would you give them?
Beth: Start writing. We all wait for the perfect time. There isn't a perfect time. I had to make time. In terms of the writing process, just get down and do it. Even if you write for five minutes a day, just get a practice going. In terms of the overall mindfulness piece of it, having a meaningful ritual, again, don’t worry about what the perfect thing is. Make sure you start something. It’ll probably come to you later. I realized multiple years into this that making bread every Friday, it’s become a thing. I rearranged my whole life for this. That's when I realized the power of what I was doing.
Zibby: Excellent. Thank you, Beth, for sharing all your stories in this book, for sharing your time with me, for listeners of “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Can't wait to taste our challah when it comes out.
Beth: I know. Me too. I'm excited. Thank you so much.
Zibby: Thank you.