OVERVIEW: He's the man who has helped millions of vegetarians find a choice on meat-laden restaurant menus. Paul Wenner, inventor of the Gardenburger veggie patty and a Portland resident, is also the author of "Garden Cuisine," a book detailing how he got interested in plant-based diets long before it was popular and how he turned the Gardenburger into an international phenomenon. In addition, the book contains more than 150 healthy, vegetarian recipes.
Wenner, who lives in Portland, Ore., said his interest in natural foods began in the mid-1960s, when he discovered the relationship between diet and his poor health. After a stint in the Air Force, he taught cooking classes and presented healthy eating seminars. He opened a vegetarian restaurant called the Gardenhouse in Gresham, Ore., in 1981, where he invented the now world-famous Gardenburger.
The restaurant went out of business in 1984, but Wenner credits that setback with helping popularize the Gardenburger because it gave him a chance to work on marketing the oat, mushroom, cheese and rice patties full-time. Wenner's company, Wholesome and Hearty Foods, Inc., has sold more than 100 million Gardenburgers in 14 countries, he said.
In a recent interview with Common Ground Reflections, Wenner spoke about his new book and about his ideas concerning nutrition:
Common Ground Reflections: In your new book, you describe how changes in your diet helped you overcome asthma as a teenager. Could you elaborate?
Paul Wenner: I really haven't had any health problems since I was 17. When I was about 16 or 17, I started reading books on health and nutrition like Paul Bragg's The Miracle of Fasting and Ellen B.White, a writer for the Adventist Church. I started realizing there was a real connection between what you put in your mouth and what you did not put in your mouth, between your health and how you felt. So I immediately changed everything about my diet. I stopped eating all white flour products, most dairy products, anything that wasn't a whole grain or a whole food kind of pretty much left my diet. What was left was a lot of healthy things: vegetable, fruits, legumes, seeds, nuts, that sort of thing. And within a month I could breathe almost normally for the first time in my life. Thirty two years later, I'm still talking and studying about it.
CGR: You're best known for inventing the Gardenburger. How did you come up with the recipe?
PW: The Gardenburger really was a result of a recipe that I was making for a special one day in the restaurant. I had a little restaurant called the Gardenhouse Restaurant in Gresham, Ore. from 1981-84. Somewhere about '81, the weather was bad that week, business was slow and I had a lot of leftover rice pilaf. So I just took the rice pilaf leftover - I was going to make a lunch special - and added mushrooms and oats and some low-fat grated cheese and pretty much made a loaf out of it and baked it. The next day I had "Garden Loaf" sandwiches . .. I grilled it up the next day and changed the name from "Garden Loaf" to "Gardenburger." And so the Gardenburger was born, out of leftover rice pilaf.
CGR: There's a lesson to be learned here not just about the value of healthy eating but also of the importance of recycling.
PW: I'm the ultimate recycler... my whole house in Portland was made out of used materials for a 12 year period. It's a very unique place that has used many, many recycled materials. All of the windows in my house are used.
CGR: In your book, you come down hard on eating fish, which many people think of as a healthier alternative to eating beef, pork and chicken.
PW: Every time you eat any kind of animal, it's an inefficient way to eat, first of all. I believe that fish also is very toxic because of the way we've really ruined our waterways and oceans. So you end up feeding all the small fish to the bigger ones and you end up concentrating all these toxic metals. I also believe in not eating something with a face or a mother, something that can look back at you and cry. Environmentally, of course, it's much better to eat fish than beef. It's lower on the food chain. But I recommend people not eat any animals whatsoever.
CGR: You also advocate a low-fat, high complex carbohydrate diet. I understand there are some studies concerning certain indigenous peoples - specifically the Tarahumara Indians - that show this is an excellent way to health.
PW: There are many peoples across the world, and there have been many studies over the last 30, 40, 50 years. When you find people with the high complex carbohydrate diet that is low in the food chain and contains a lot of whole foods, the people's health is naturally better. They have less diseases. From what I've researched over the years, human beings aren't designed to eat meat. The animals closest to humans, like gorillas, are vegetarians. I always tell people you can just go out and jump a cow and eat it in the field. If you can eat it , then I guess you're meant to eat it. You can't bite into a cow no matter what you do. For all practical reasons, we're not designed to eat flesh . . . I call it the "lazy syndrome." Mankind somewhere became lazy and said it's a lot tougher to grow gardens than to hack an animal up. It's out of really the shortcuts that we got into eating meat, and not wanting to do what it takes to grow, and forage for, food. Some people do think that we ate a lot of meat early in our history, but really meat was just consumed in small quantities. It took a lot of energy to get and we ended up really eating a lot more vegetable or plant-based foods because we had to go forage them.
CGR: You're also a proponent of regular fasting. Explain your views on this.
PW: I got into fasting back in '65. Paul Bragg, who was the father of the health food movement, he was one of the guys who really promoted this alternative shopping idea, and I read one of his books, The Miracle of Fasting. I started fasting and found that, wow, I get a lot more energy, I was feeling that I was really cleansing my body of the sort of things I was doing previous to that, eating a lot of heavy dairy products and heavy meats and no fiber. I look back at my childhood, my gosh, I was probably eating three grams of fiber a day. The body needs 20-25 Fasting and eating whole foods and the combination really made a huge difference. I really literally never get sick. I mean, I'm going, going, going. Since 1965 I haven't stopped. My average work week is 80 hours a week. I'm on an idea diet right now, because I've got too many ideas.
CGR: Speaking of ideas, what's the next Garden product we can expect from you?
PW: The Gardenchicken, which is one we're probably going to put out in a big way in the next year. It's been in research and development for about eight years. It really looks like chicken. It has the same muscle striations as a chicken. Chicken is one of the largest consumed protein meats on Earth. We thought it would be nice to replace some of that chicken with a vegetable-based product. People think chicken's healthy, they don't realize that chicken's full of cholesterol also. Many people don't even know that. The meat industry's done a real good job educating people the way they want them to think. If you look at a three-ounce portion of chicken that's skinned, it has 71 milligrams of cholesterol. You look at 3 ounces of top sirloin, it has 73. Look at the USDA manual. It's right in there. I was surprised myself.