Sodium Girl Jessica Goldman Foung Finds Flavor Sans Salt

by Sarah Henry on March 3, 2013 · 2 comments

in bay area bites,comfort food,food books,food security,restaurants

Jessica Goldman Foung started eating for health after illness struck. Photo: Norbert von der Groeben, courtesy Stanford Hospital & Clinics

There likely aren’t many cookbooks out there that include a nod to the author’s kidneys in the acknowledgments. But in Jessica Goldman Foung’s Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook, she not only thanks these vital organs, she does so by name. She calls her kidneys Frank and Stein.

Given Goldman Foung’s health history — the woman nearly died during her college years, the result of an aggressive form of lupus attacking her kidneys and brain that required chemotherapy to combat — her fondness for her resilient kidneys is understandable.

At 21, Goldman Foung found herself on dialysis waiting for a transplant. She could have wallowed in the misery of it all, instead she opted to overhaul her diet and began a strict low-sodium, no-salt regimen. With that shift, and in concert with topnotch medical care, her kidneys began regenerating over the course of a year in such a way that not even her doctors at Stanford Hospital could fully explain. Fast forward to today and she’s officially been kicked off the kidney transplant list for nine years and has stayed healthy and active through diet and medications alone.

Given all she went through — and learned along the way — she sought to share her experiences with others who might benefit from a low-sodium way of life. In 2009 she began her blog, Sodium Girl, and ever since she’s been experimenting with creating tasty favorite foods and comfort fare sans salt in her kitchen. The self-taught cook champions finding alternative flavors through techniques like smoking and roasting, by drawing on the natural salty taste found in foods like beets and celery and in experimenting with spices. She’s also the queen of substitutions to create finger-licking food. Think: molasses for miso, cauliflower for cheese, balsamic blueberry sauce for BBQ sauce, and tamarind paste for soy sauce to create a teriyaki-like alternative.

The granddaughter of philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman (perhaps best known for the Goldman Environmental Prize), this bubbly 30-year-old has worked in development for ODC Dance Company and is soon to sit on the board of CUESA, where she first had the chance to wax poetic about produce and other wholesome foods for the non-profit’s newsletter. The self-described foodlanthropist writes regularly for Edible San Francisco and lives in Noe Valley with her husband and 4-month-old daughter Nomi.

Goldman Foung will talk buffalo wings, pad Thai, and baked macaroni and peas — all whipped up without the addition of those addictive white crystals, at a reading at Omnivore Books on March 3. She’ll also hold cooking demonstrations at 18 Reasons on March 4 and at CUESA on March 30.

Why did you start your food blog?

I was trying to figure out what kind of job was going to work for my health and my body. I wanted to be a writer — I was a creative writing major at Stanford — but I basically had to start my career from ground zero. The best advice I got at the time was start with a blog and write about what you know, and what I know about is living with lupus and eating a low-sodium diet.

One of my first posts — the black dress theory uses the analogy that losing salt from your diet is like not having black in your closet. It was the moment when I found my voice. I wanted to talk about a low-sodium life in a way people can relate to. It was a younger, fresher, more positive and playful way to tackle the subject with spirit.

Everyone had always told me to write about my experience being sick but I had never found the right vehicle. Food became the perfect way to write about overcoming challenges, making the most of things, and using your hardships to set sail on new adventures.

Are there many other low-sodium cookbooks?

There’s a good handful but what’s missing is the low-sodium cookbook that can be on anyone’s shelf that you can share with friends or take out when you’re having a dinner party, one that leaves you with the knowledge you can salt-free any recipe and make it work. That’s where my cookbook comes in.

Low-sodium cooking has been excommunicated from the culinary world because salt has been put on this flavor pedestal. We’ve got to change that so low sodium is seen more like vegan or gluten-free cooking. It adds to the culinary playbook versus being totally separate from it.

Say what? A kimchi umami burger with no added salt. Photo: Jessica Goldman Foung

How did you eat before you got sick?

I was a junk food eater. I think I would be in big trouble if I hadn’t gotten sick because I ate Taco Bell and French fries all the time. I grew up in a family where we used a microwave to steam our vegetables and we ordered out three nights a week; I ate a lot of Chinese food and pizza. I was also a very unadventurous eater: I was mostly just into traditional American comfort fare.

Do you miss the taste of salt?

I actually don’t even remember it. Some people ask me about salt substitutes but I’m like: ‘Why would you even go there?’ Salt is almost offensive to my mouth now because it’s so strong to me.

What are some of the myths about low-sodium food that you’ve dispelled by living without salt?

Low-sodium food is viewed as dull, boring, time consuming, and costly. Also: No eating out, no eating convenience or comfort foods, nothing canned, and no eating with friends. I discovered that none of those things have to be true. Now, if you just remove salt, a dish is going to be unappealing, because it’s just the food you love without salt and that’s not going to work. I joke about endangered spices: Because we’re so focused on only using salt other spices may become extinct. But celery seed is a great salt replacement, because it has so much natural sodium taste. Curry, cumin, and coriander seed are strong flavors you can use everywhere. I’m having a passionate affair with those three right now. But there are so many spices to play with — smoked paprika, dill, mace.

Sodium Girl's salt-free version of the classic comfort fare buffalo wings. Photo: Jessica Goldman Foung

How is it dining around town with your dietary needs?

San Francisco has been so accommodating. I tell people in situations like mine: Don’t be afraid to strike up a relationship. If you have a restaurant you love to go to, call ahead, meet with the manager, and sit down and say: ‘Here is what I’m living with, what do you need me to do to make it easier for people? How many days ahead do you need me to call?’ If you make relationships you’re going to get food cooked the way you need it. And then you don’t feel like an outsider anymore; if anything you feel like a VIP diner. I probably get better meals than my friends because they’re usually made by the head chef, to order, with so much care.

Maverick was the first place where I received a salt-free meal that was cooked with as much flair as all the other plates coming out of the kitchen. Firefly is down the street from me, so I go maybe twice a month — frequenting a place definitely helps. The more they cook for me the more adventurous they get. I went to Nojo, the Japanense izakaya restaurant, with a last-minute reservation thinking I could get sashimi, which is easy for me. I took one look at the menu and thought there’s no way I can eat here I’ll just drink my dinner. But the chef Greg Dunmore circled on the menu what he thought he could do over for me salt- free. I had chicken neck, sautéed chicken liver, and food flavored with his personal stash of special chili peppers.

Why invite prominent chefs, including Traci Des Jardins (Jardiniere, Mijita Cocina Mexicana), Scott Youkilis (Maverick, Hog & Rocks) and Hubert Keller (Fleur de Lys), to contribute recipes to this book?

Chefs love to create new tastes and they love a challenge, this is what they do and why they cook. Their contributions are testimony that even top chefs can have fun and hold the salt, in dishes full of flavors, layers, and unexpected combinations.

Were there any recipe flops that didn’t make it into the book?

The one I wanted in there that didn’t make it was pho. I got it right on my first try but didn’t write anything down and I wasn’t able to replicate it again. I will have a faux pho on my website at some stage.

Quick Kimchi + Crispy Tofu Salad. Photo: Matt Armendariz

What’s your day-to-day life like living with lupus?

I deal with chronic joint pain, chronic fatigue, and I’m immune suppressed, so I don’t have a lot of reserves. I also have hypertension from my kidneys. I have to watch my fluid retention and all that fun stuff. And there are lots of aftershocks from chemo. For the most part, though, I’m busier and more active than most people I know. My condition has never stopped me from doing anything I wanted to do, I just have to be creative about it. I’m on a ton of meds and I have to check in with my doctors on a regular basis, but so much less so than when I was younger. When I was writing the book I was like: ‘Okay kidneys, don’t fail on me now because that would be really bad marketing.’

Are you always able to remain upbeat in the face of adversity?

My life before my illness prepared me for when I got sick. I was misdiagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which is what my mom has, so I have this amazing role model of a woman. You would never know she was sick. She’s always positive. Her theory is when your life is changed, change your life. When I got sick I had a rule: It was okay to be sad but you couldn’t do it in my hospital room. When I shaved my head, I invited friends over and we had drinks and played music. It’s not like I don’t break down, I do. Having a good three-hour cry is important, and then you eat chocolate and you call it a day. At a certain point it’s not useful energy and I have only so much energy.

Why are you donating a portion of your book’s royalties to Wholesome Wave?

Philanthropy has always been a part of my life. I’m a Goldman, I don’t usually talk about it much, but I’m embracing it as I get older. I never wanted people to think that I was spoiled or to judge me. I wanted to have a career for myself outside of my family, which is funny because I went into the nonprofit world. But I always wanted to be in a profession where I was giving back. I worked for the Arthritis Foundation and ODC, and while health and the arts are really important it never felt like I was touching enough people and having a big enough impact. I watched “Julie & Julia” and “Food, Inc.” on the same day when I was in the middle of funemployment and I realized that food was going to be it for me, that access point that combines social issues, education, the environment, and health.

Sustainable agriculture has become my passion and my book talks about using fresh ingredients when so few people have access to good fresh food or the cost is prohibitive. It’s a bigger problem than I can solve and not my expertise, so the only way I could write this book and have it sit well with me is to have it help fund people who are addressing the issue of fresh food access for everyone.

Fresh food for all: Pickled beet salad Photo: Jessica Goldman Foung

Is there a takeaway from writing this cookbook for home cooks?

People freak out when they’re cooking a recipe and they don’t have an ingredient when that really is the moment when they should jump for joy. Don’t have a potato but have an apple? Go for it — that will automatically change the dish. Enjoy experimenting, don’t think recipes are set in stone, and remember that you have creative license when you cook. That’s one of my favorite ways to cook: To switch out an ingredient and make it your own, just different enough, say, using fennel instead of celery. It’s all good.

What’s next?

I’m teaching a writing class through continuing education at Stanford in April Writing Through Illness. I’ve been very lucky I have this platform where I get to share my experiences and it’s so empowering and I think that’s why I never see myself as losing out. I gained so much from telling my story. Not everyone realizes they can have that platform. It’s a five-week course and at the end we’re doing an open mic at the medical school.

And I’d really like to write an interactive children’s story for kids with kidney disease for while they’re in doctors’ waiting rooms. I think I’ll call it The Adventures of Frank and Stein. Frank and Stein really need their own book.

Time for a low-sodium Bloody Mary. We thought you’d never ask. Photo: Jessica Goldman Foung

This post originally appeared (with recipes) on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

erin @ yummy supper March 4, 2013 at 8:23 am

Wow… cooking flavorful food without salt? I’m totally impressed. Also that Jessica dealt with her illness by healing herself with food…. awesome.
Sarah, I hope you and yours are well maybe we’ll cross paths again before too long!
erin @ yummy supper´s last [type] ..BAKED APPLES WITH HAZELNUTS, MAPLE CREAM + CREME FRAICHE


Sarah Henry March 4, 2013 at 8:49 am

Couldn’t agree more, Erin. I think you and Jessica would enjoy each other, so I hope your paths cross before too long too.

We’re well — back from Oz, thought of you when we were there. We’ll have to compare notes soon. I’m about to click over to your recipe link: baked apples with hazelnuts, maple cream + creme fraiche sounds pretty awesome to me right now.


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