Finding the fun again

Column by Hal Walter

Nutrition – September 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

PERHAPS THE MUSICAL EVENT of the year in Custer County happened right in my own living room one early August evening. Phil Maffetone and Coralee Thompson were passing through the area on their way home to Tucson and stopped for a few days. On their last night here they set up their equipment and played a concert for two.

Phil and I have worked together for nearly a decade. In addition to being a musician, he is a well-known complementary medicine practitioner and has worked with professional and amateur athletes as well as some celebrity personalities. I have edited and helped publish some of his books, and also edited and published his newsletter for a number of years. For some time I even screened his e-mail. These days I am a minor partner in a venture he launched called First Organics, which manufactures and markets dietary supplements made from certified organic whole foods.

Phil had always expressed an interest in music, so a few years ago when he received an e-mail from a major Hollywood music producer who had some diet questions I passed it on to him. In short, the message led to Phil launching his music career and working with a number of major music figures, including Johnny Cash. For more on Phil’s interesting take on Johnny’s passing, check out the Nashville Sessions section of his website, You can also get a taste of what went on in my living room on his site as there are songs there for the listening.

Since the Nashville days, Phil has recorded an album, “We All Need,” which includes guitar performances by John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Phil and Coralee also have been touring the Western U.S. and Canada playing music this summer.

As for Coralee, I first “met” her in a phone interview for an article I was doing for Phil’s newsletter. An M.D., she was formerly the medical director at The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia. The organization works with brain-injured and healthy children. Phil met her while lecturing there. Coralee has since left the Institutes and now they are making music together.

To say that I owe a good deal of my health and human performance to Phil’s teachings and philosophies would be an understatement. With his help I have been able to find a balanced diet that works well for me, and a balanced training program that at the age of 47 gets me ready for a season on the pack-burro-racing circuit, our eclectic Central Colorado sport that involves running up mountain passes with burros.

SO IT WAS NOT WITHOUT IRONY that Phil showed up right in the middle of the Triple Crown races this summer. I had managed to win the 29-mile World Championship race at Fairplay but it had left me beat up and downright sick most of the week coming into the Leadville Boom Days race. I finished second there and, moreover, just felt like I wasn’t having fun with the sport. You know you’re in trouble when the only way you can find the fun in something is by winning.

On the way home from Leadville I wondered if perhaps it was time to move on.

Phil’s arrival served as a sort of wakeup call. Maybe I could do better with my diet. Maybe I should manage my stress levels better. Maybe I should listen to my body and get some real rest. Maybe I should learn to have fun again. With a little fine-tuning, I could feel better in three days.

In addition, Phil and Coralee consulted with Mary and myself about our son Harrison, who is developmentally delayed and exhibits some autistic-like features. We had already moved Harrison off all dairy products, but they urged us to also take him off all gluten-containing grains like wheat, and to severely limit other types of starches and grains for the next six months.

ONE DAY DURING their visit Coralee made a house call and coached me through an afternoon with Harrison, and also taught us both — yes, Harrison, too — how to make grain-free crackers (recipe follows). She showed me how to engage him in more activities and emphasized the importance of independent outside play.

It is probably news to most people that daily consumption of pork and lard in populations of Soviet Georgia, Okinawa and Ecuador have been linked to good health and longevity, while grain-fed Americans are among the most unhealthy and overweight people on Earth.

I don’t eat what most people would consider a lot of grain-based foods, but I found that under the influence of Phil and Coralee I began to analyze my diet and further restrict these foods, especially refined grain products. It’s not like this program is painful. It’s not about denying yourself, and in fact I can and do eat almost anything I want to eat within reason. Mainly what you want to do is control the production of insulin in order to get your body to burn a higher percentage of fat as a fuel. To clean things up a little, fruit replaced toast and sandwiches became Romaine lettuce roll-ups. I ate some organic bacon. Maybe Harrison and I could both get off the grain grid.

After the Fairplay race the previous week I had not been able to work out at all. But I recovered so fast from the Leadville race that I had to restrict myself to short runs by week’s end. Part of it might have been diet; part might have been attitude adjustment.

The night of the living room concert I grilled some very fresh sockeye salmon, so rare that most people would call it sashimi. Coralee brought an exquisite oriental coleslaw and we also had steamed broccoli and fresh greens — chard, spinach, dandelion, arugula and mache — from my garden. I had a small serving of black beans. All of this was washed down with red wine. Coralee also whipped up a quick cheesecake (recipe follows), which was served with fresh organic strawberries and real whipped cream; we saved this dairy delight to eat after Harrison went to bed.

The meal left me sufficiently restored for my two-minute keyboard lesson from Phil. If I recall, it consisted of finding the chords of middle C, D minor and G minor. He coached me through a song while he strummed his guitar. Thankfully he turned the keyboard down, as without any cue I noticed Coralee joined in with her flute and vocals on a song called “If I Become the Wind.”

ALTHOUGH MY CHORDS were faint and I was screwing up royally, I felt the fleeting sensation of playing music with real musicians. It was fun and it was powerful. After that, I relinquished the seat to a real keyboard player, Coralee, and reclined on my couch to enjoy the music on into the night. It was Friday evening and the last race of the year was in Buena Vista race on Sunday.

Phil and Coralee drove for Tucson the next morning. I can’t say I remember feeling better in a burro race than I did that Sunday. It was a good, clean hard-running race. Two guys and their burros were faster than Laredo and I were that day, and we finished just a few seconds behind them in third place. Neither of these competitors had run the longer races the previous two weeks and so they probably had a little more snap in their legs than I did. But none of that mattered to me. There was only one thing that really mattered.

It was fun again.

Hal Walter writes from his home in the Wet Mountains. Phil Maffetone’s book In Fitness and In Health is available from .

Grain-Free Crackers and Pancakes

1 cup raw almonds

1/2 cup flax seeds

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 eggs

1/4 cup water, or maybe less

1 teaspoon baking powder (for pancakes only)

In a food processor, grind all dry ingredients until they form a meal. Add the oil, then the eggs. Then add water slowly until it forms a dough. Spread on parchment paper and work with hands into a thin layer. Cut out cracker shapes with a spatula. Place on a cookie sheet and bake at 180 for 2 hours or until crackers reach desired crispness. (I like them softer.) For pancakes, remove the dry ingredients from the processor and mix in a bowl with a teaspoon baking powder and a little more water to form batter. These are really good cooked in bacon grease.

Quick Cheesecake

8 ounces organic cream cheese

8 ounces ricotta cheese (fresh goat if available)

1/2 cup honey

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

In a food processor, blend all ingredients, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides. Whip until silky smooth and creamy, then pour directly into a glass baking dish. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Let chill, then serve with fresh fruit and whipped cream.