Gretchen McKay

She’s happy to be vegan, and thinks you will be, too

Crispy peanut tofu made with spiralized carrots and zucchini, topped with a spicy peanut sauce, cilantro and lime Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, at Sharon Gregory’s home in Pine Township. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Sharon Gregory had what she considered a pretty good diet when she set off into the world after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in math education. Plenty of fruits and vegetables. Moderate amounts of protein. Always easy on the sweet treats.

Even when she was constantly traveling the world, first as a sales service technician for Whirlpool and later as a Lean Six Sigma trainer and consultant with the company she started in 2001, she ate as healthily as possible.

But then in January 2014 she had a routine mammogram that detected an abnormal lump. It was malignant. Four rounds of chemotherapy and 32 days of radiation followed, during which time the 44-year-old Butler County native did some serious soul searching about what might have caused her cancer.

“Have you ever considered your diet?” a friend asked one day, recommending she pick up a copy of  “Crazy Sexy Diet.” Written by cancer survivor and wellness warrior Kris Carr, it champions a “healing lifestyle” focused around a plant-based diet.

When she read the NYT bestseller, “my eyes were opened,” says Ms. Gregory, who lives with her husband, Dave, in Pine. “I was horrified.”

She was particularly upset by the fact that only five to 10 percent of cancers can be attributed to genetic defects; the rest, experts say, may be linked to the environment, drinking, diet and lack of exercise. On the spot, she decided to change her lifestyle.

Everything that wasn’t plant-based immediately got tossed from the fridge.  “Are you going vegan?” asked her husband, even though he knew the answer “and just basically stayed out of my way,” she says.

By June that year, she was so immersed in the vegan lifestyle that she started a second business in the Shaler office building she’d bought in 2007 and transformed into an event/training center. It’s called The Happy Vegan, and its goal is to make plant-based eating and lifestyle choices more accessible, simple and sustainable. It offers coaching along with cooking classes and other events.

Before going vegan and gluten-free, Ms. Gregory had never prepared a meal with tofu and couldn’t tell quinoa from birdseed. Yet her background in education and love of data analysis, she says, made it easy for her to dive into a lifestyle that’s not exactly intuitive. “I read every author,” she says, and spent hours retooling and refining recipes that would have included animal protein.

She also took the Certified Holistic Health Coaching course at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, a plant-based online culinary school.

Giving up animal products, she says, was easy enough, even if her husband chose to  remain a (mostly) happy carnivore. But her beloved cheese? “I had a mental and physical addiction,” she says laughing. To this day, she misses eating it even more than she misses good Italian bread or a crusty baguette.

While mozzarella- and Cheddar-style vegan cheeses aren’t difficult to find in better grocery stores, she kept striking out with creamy, dairy-free cheese spreads for dipping and slathering. Frustrated, she decided to create her own by mixing ground raw almonds, nutritional yeast, peppers, lemon juice, onions and sea salt in a Vitamix. It was an immediate hit.

“Every time she’d make it, we hit the bottom of the chip bag every time,” says Mr. Gregory. “It was like, ‘Wow!’ ”

She started taking the dip to friends’ house and parties. Before long, people were asking to buy it, prompting her to install a home kitchen. But it wasn’t until Noreen Campbell of McGinnis Sisters tasted a spoonful and declared it great that she realized there was a larger market for the cheesy spread she dubbed Notcho Nocheez.

“She asked me, ‘Is it shelf stable? If so, I can put it on store shelves,’” recalls Ms. Gregory, who immediately began researching co-packers.

With the help of Stello Foods, a specialty food manufacturer in Punxsutawney, the first commercially prepared batch rolled onto store shelves in January 2016. It’s now sold next to the salsa in about 80 storesacross the mid-Atlantic region, including Naturally Soergel’sShenot’s Farm and Market, Shop ’n Save, Pennsylvania Macaroni and Whole Foods. It comes in three flavors (Classic, Hot and Tangy) and costs $9.99 for a 12-ounce jar.  You also can buy it online at Notchonocheez.com.

Sales are strong enough that she’s now working to make the spread available in to-go packets to be used as a condiment or snack. She’d love to see it for sale in airports, where it’s exceedingly difficult for gluten-free and vegan travelers to buy something to eat on the go. She’s also pondering a spinach-artichoke dip.

Ms. Gregory concedes going vegan is challenging and takes planning. “But it’s doable. You just have to think it through,” she says.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Image DescriptionCrispy peanut tofu made with spiralized carrots and zucchini, topped with a spicy peanut sauce, cilantro and lime(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Crispy Peanut Tofu With Zucchini & Carrot Noodles

PG tested

The secret to crispy tofu is making sure you squeeze out the water and pat it dry after cutting it. 

1 package extra-firm tofu

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced

¼ cup organic peanut butter

3 tablespoons Bragg’s Liquid Aminos or low-sodium tamari

1 tablespoon organic coconut or brown sugar

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 to 3 tablespoons chili-garlic sauce

3 tablespoons warm water

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 zucchini, spiralized or cut into matchsticks

2 carrots, spiralized or cut  into thin strips by using your peeler

Juice from ½ lime; the other ½ cut into wedges

2  tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

½ cup unsweetened coconut flakes

Open and drain tofu and press it gently between a few layers of paper towels between 2 pans or cutting boards (something solid) to help remove excess moisture. If you have time, continue adding pressure over about 30 minutes to get the tofu as dry as possible. Once drained, cut the tofu into ¾ – 1 inch cubes.

In a small mixing bowl, add garlic, ginger, peanut butter, Bragg’s, coconut sugar, sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce and water.

In large non-stick skillet over medium-high, heat olive oil. Once hot, add the cubed tofu and cook until crispy in places, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Add ½ of the peanut sauce and cook until the tofu is sticky and browned in places, 1 to 3 minutes. Transfer the crispy peanut tofu to a plate.

Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add the zucchini and carrots. Add the remaining peanut sauce and gently toss. Reduce heat to medium and cook until noodles are heated, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the lime juice from half lime, and season with salt if needed.

Divide the veggie noodles between 2 bowls and top with the crispy peanut tofu. Sprinkle with the chopped cilantro and coconut flakes.

Serve with extra chili-garlic sauce (if desired), and garnish with lime wedges.

Serves 2.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

Image DescriptionSharon Gregory of Pine Township garnishes her vegan version of an almond joy bars with mint leaves and strawberries(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Almond Joy Mini Bars

These taste just like the Almond Joy bars of old. 

For the filling

1½ cups dried unsweetened coconut

2 tablespoons coconut oil

3 tablespoons pure maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch salt

For the coating

⅓ cup melted cacao butter

⅓ cup raw cacao powder

2 tablespoons maple syrup

Pinch sea salt

⅛ cup of sliced almonds

In a food processor fitted with the “S” blade, process all filling ingredients until well mixed and uniform. The filling will be a little wet, but it should stick together well.

Shape the filling into 12 mini rectangles if you want bars, or roll into 1-inch balls (easier). Place them on a parchment lined shallow casserole or baking pan. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a double boiler, melt the cacao butter over medium high heat. It won’t take long for the cacao butter to melt (less than 5 minutes).

When the cacao butter is melted, whisk in the cacao powder, maple syrup and sea salt. Don’t overcook! When the chocolate is mixed together and of a smooth consistency, remove from heat.

Allow coating to cool slightly, then take each mini bar and dip it into the coating and quickly place it back on the parchment paper. Return them to the fridge for 10 minutes, or until one coating has set. Repeat the process, so that each bar/ball has a double coat.

Press a few slivered almonds on top of each mini bar/ball after the second coating of chocolate. Return them to the fridge for another 10 minutes (or more), to let them set. Any leftovers can be put in an air tight container and kept in the refrigerator for several days (or the freezer).

Makes 12 bars.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

Image DescriptionSharon Gregory of Pine Township as she describes her vegan, crab-less cakes, made with hearts of palm, garbanzo beans, Cajun seasoning, celery, jalapeno and lime juice.(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Crabless Cajun Cakes

Garbanzo beans and hearts of palm replace crab in these vegan cakes.

For cakes

1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

1 jalapeno, seeds and membranes removed, coarsely chopped

1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped

1 lime, juiced

2 tablespoons hemp seeds

2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning or spice

½ cup gluten-free panko breadcrumbs, divided

1 (15-ounce) can hearts of palm, drained and chopped, divided

¼ to ½ teaspoon sea salt

⅛ teaspoon pepper

For aioli and slaw

2 to 3 cloves of garlic, depending on taste, minced

1 cup Veganaisse mayo

¼ green apple, cut into thin matchsticks

4 large kale leaves, stems removed, and chopped into bite-size pieces

1 beet, peeled and spiralized, or cut into thin matchsticks

1 carrot, peeled and spiralized, or cut into thin matchsticks

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

In a food processor, add the drained garbanzo geans, jalapeno, celery, 1 teaspoon lime juice, hemp seeds, Cajun seasoning, and ¼ cup of the panko breadcrumbs. Pulse about 10 times. Don’t make it mush! It should be chunky.

Add ½ can of drained/​chopped hearts of palm, sea salt, and pepper. Pulse about 3 times to incorporate into the cake mixture.

Form the cake mixture into 6 to 8 patties, place on a plate, and put in the fridge.

Make the lime aioli in a small bowl by adding the minced garlic, 2 teaspoons of the lime juice (add more to taste), Veganaise, and a pinch of salt. Stir. Add more lime juice if needed.

Make the “slaw” in a large bowl. Add the remaining chopped hearts of palm, apple, kale, beets, 1 tablespoon lime aioli, remaining lime juice, and a pinch of sea salt and pepper. Toss the salad to evenly coat.

Sprinkle the remaining panko crumbs over the cake patties. Carefully turn them over and coat the other side (press the breadcrumbs lightly onto the cakes so that it sticks on).

Place a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat with 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Once hot (a couple of minutes), add the cake patties and cook until golden brown, flipping once, about 3 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer the cakes to a paper towel-lined plate.

Put the slaw portions desired on a plate and top with the crabless cakes. Serve with lime aioli for dipping. Garnish with additional chopped lime, if desired.

Leftovers will keep overnight in an airtight container in the fridge for about 3 to 4 days.

Serves 2 to 3.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

Dreams of a dreamer

Gisele Fetterman helps her son August, 4, get ready for school at their home in Braddock. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

The line of new and expectant mothers stretched a half block down Braddock Avenue by the time Gisele Fetterman opened the doors of a former-pharmacy-turned-business-incubator at 5 p.m. and welcomed in the smiling faces.

Inside was a mountain of baby equipment and supplies, still in their original packaging, free for the taking. The charity organization Delivering Good had dropped off 27 pallets of infant gear that morning — enough car seats, strollers and baby carriers to fill the beds of more than two dozen pickup trucks. It was time to give it all away at Braddock’s first community baby shower.

It took Ms. Fetterman and her volunteers more than eight hours to unload and sort the baby booty into piles. Larger pieces got stacked against a wall on one side of the room; baby books, clothes and blankets were piled high on a folding table on another, kitty-corner from where MAYA Organization handed out flyers about the nonprofit’s free services to pregnant women.

 

“It was my workout for the month,” joked Ms. Fetterman, 36, herself a mother of three, before rushing off to kiss a baby and envelop his excited mom in a hug.

Many politicians’ wives do good deeds for the communities they live in. Ms. Fetterman has rolled up her sleeves and gotten to work in her adopted town of Braddock from day one, and never slowed down. And she has big plans in her new role as Pennsylvania’s second lady after her husband, John, was sworn in as Pennsylvania lieutenant governor in January.

Since moving to Braddock from New Jersey more than 10 years ago, she has become one of the struggling steel town’s staunchest activists and community leaders. The baby shower showcased her latest initiative, The Hollander Project, the incubator and co-working space for local women entrepreneurs she co-founded last year.

In 2012, she established Free Store 15104, where residents in need can “shop” for slightly used clothes and household items and surplus food. In 2015, wanting to address the disparate problems of food insecurity and food waste, she co-founded 412 Food Rescue so that unwanted, perishable foods made its way into schools, shelters and charities instead of a Dumpster. For Good PGH, a nonprofit that works to advocate inclusion and inspire kindness, followed in 2017.

She doesn’t draw a salary for any of it.

It’s a contagious energy that has made the Brazilian “dreamer” who came to the U.S. undocumented at age 7 arguably more popular than Braddock’s longtime, larger-than-life former mayor — her husband John.

“She’s magical,” said Kristen Michaels, her partner at The Hollander. “She just believes things are going to work when everyone else is thinking about what can go wrong or how much work it will be.”

“She has an X-factor,” Mr. Fetterman agreed. “Her compassion and empathy has no filter, and people are drawn to that.”

She’s also fearless, especially when it comes to the subject of immigration.

After her husband was elected to office Nov. 6, she tweeted, “Pennsylvania, your second lady is a formerly undocumented immigrant. Thank you.”Pennsylvania, your second lady is a formerly undocumented immigrant. ❤️Thank you.

And at his inauguration on Jan. 15, she gave her fellow dreamers a visual shout-out by attaching a pin to the bow of her vintage-inspired dress. Handcrafted by Braddock-based Studebaker Metals, it reads “Immigrant” in flowing script.

‘GOING ON AN ADVENTURE’

Gisele Fetterman thought she was simply going on ”an adventure” when her mother, Ester, asked her to help pack a suitcase in 1989. In reality, they were leaving Brazil to immigrate to the U.S. Here she is on her Brazilian passport. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

Ms. Fetterman was in second grade when her mother, Ester Resende, came home from work carrying two suitcases. They were going on an adventure, she said, and Gisele and her older brother, Delfim, needed to pack. At the time, the family was living in Rio de Janeiro’s middle-class community of Jacarepagua in the West Zone, but it was close to one of the city’s largest slums. Her mom, who had divorced Ms. Fetterman’s father when Ms. Fetterman was just a baby, had decided to escape Rio de Janeiro’s never-ending violence after learning her sister-in-law Madalena had been robbed for a seventh time. Within days, they were on a plane to New York.

No one in her family spoke any English, so they had to rely on a friend of a friend to put them up in an extra bedroom while they searched for a cheap apartment. They ended up above a doctor’s office in Queens, where her mother — a nutritionist with a doctorate in Brazil — found work cleaning houses and working for tips as a coat check girl. They furnished the apartment with items their neighbors had discarded at the curb.

Gisele Fetterman spent her early childhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She immigrated with her mother, Ester, and brother, Delfim, to the U.S. in 1989, when she was 7. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

Gisele Fetterman visits the West Zone neighborhood she grew up in during an August 2018 visit to Rio de Janeiro. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

At first, Ms. Fetterman found trash-picking puzzling; in Brazil, she said, nobody ever throws anything away. But soon enough, whenever they heard garbage trucks rumbling down the block, “that’s when we went shopping,” she said. Her mother, who moved to North Braddock to be close to her daughter and her family, still has some of those original pieces in her home.

Gisele Fetterman’s parents, Delfim Almeida and Ester Resende, pictured in her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

In 1990, the family moved across the Hudson River to more affordable Harrison, N.J. Studies show that children of immigrants experience more poverty and don’t do as well in school. But Ms. Fetterman, who learned English by watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” said her family always managed to get by because of her mother’s sacrifices, even if they had to be invisible and avoid the spotlight. Smart and hardworking, she was inducted into the National Honor Society in high school.

“Kids adapt,” she said.

Other than being teased occasionally about her “unibrow,” she had no problem making friends with other ESL students. She marched in her middle school color guard, acted in school plays and dipped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins after school and on weekends. But she was never completely at ease until she became a permanent resident in 2004. Until then, she knew she could be deported at any time. “You pay taxes and work so hard, so it was like, ‘What do you mean you won’t want us here?’” she said. She became a U.S. citizen in 2009.

Her brother became an artist in New York City. She studied math at Kean University in New Jersey before deciding she’d really rather be a holistic nutritionist. She earned her degree at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition for Holistic Nutrition while also volunteering as a “hugger” at a home for babies going through withdrawal and feeding the homeless at a Salvation Army canteen in Newark, N.J.

“I always knew her future would be bright,” said her mother, because she’s a glass-half-full person. “She wears rose-colored glasses and wants people to see through those glasses.”

One person greatly influenced by Ms. Fetterman is Destinee Holmes, who met her when she was 10 through a Big Sister mentoring program in Newark. Ms. Holmes, who is studying criminal justice at Essex County College, still talks to her at least three times a week.

“She’s just a beautiful person who wants the best for you,” said Ms. Holmes, noting how she helped her navigate a skin disorder. “You can trust that she’ll always be there for you.”

After graduating from the institute in 2007, Ms. Fetterman worked as a nutritionist focusing on food justice and access. She often organized pop-ups where she distributed free furniture and other nonperishables that businesses had donated to Newark residents in need.

“I was food insecure growing up,” she said, “so knowing that even one less person isn’t is really special to me.”

A PERFECT FIT

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman gets help putting on his tie from his wife, Gisele Fetterman, in their hotel room before leaving for his swearing-in ceremony Jan. 15 in Harrisburg. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

It was a 2007 article in a magazine called ReadyMade that introduced her to Braddock. Relaxing at a yoga retreat, she read about the heavily tattooed mayor in shorts who was trying to revitalize a forgotten town. As someone who also had chosen to live and work in a town that many had written off, she felt a connection.

Gisele and John Fetterman on their wedding day in 2008. The couple eloped to Burlington, Vt., and picked a justice of the peace out of the phone book. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

“It stayed in my head,” she said, and so she wrote a letter to the borough about the work she was doing and how it might translate to Braddock. Impressed that somebody had actually taken the time to put pen to paper, Mr. Fetterman called and asked her to visit. She accepted, and a month later they were exchanging strategies and ideas at a reception at the library.

It wasn’t quite love at first sight. But there was something about the 6-foot-8 man that just felt … right. Mr. Fetterman felt it, too.

“She charmed everybody,” he said, including his parents, who were in town visiting.

Braddock, Ms. Fetterman decided, was nothing like the sad, abandoned town she’d read about. “It just needed more love.”

Their relationship blossomed, and they eloped to Burlington, Vt., in June 2008, picking a justice of the peace out of the phone book. On their wedding night, they discovered they were having a baby. Karl is now 10, and they also have Grace, 7, and August, 4.

To those who don’t know them, they make a most unlikely pair, and not just because the differences are so visually striking.

She easily tears up and is constantly kissing babies. He rarely cracks a smile in public.

Stylish, with a weakness for boots, she has amassed an enviable wardrobe of thrift store and sales rack finds that ensures she looks chic even when she’s handing out diapers. He wore cargo shorts to their wedding.

She was raised vegetarian and their kids don’t eat meat either. He loves a good cheeseburger.

And she’s happy to be the front woman for her many projects and events. An introvert, he’d much rather work quietly behind the scenes.

What makes the relationship work, they said, is a shared commitment to lending a hand to those who need it and passion for social justice. “He’s just good,” Ms. Fetterman said of her husband.

“She’s the real leader,” he insisted, adding, “I’m jealous everyone loves her, for good reason.”

A FRIEND TO EVERYONE

Gisele Fetterman, with her daughter Grace, then 4 months, attends a 2011 protest to support breastfeeding in public. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

It’s virtually impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about Ms. Fetterman.

“She just says ‘yes’ without thinking about what she’s committed us to?” offered Ms. Michaels, who worked with her on the Hello Hijab project at For Good Pittsburgh, which makes tiny hijabs for Barbie dolls to teach kids about religious and cultural differences.

Gisele Fetterman circled this tweet on her Instagram story to show some people’s reaction to her childhood as an undocumented immigrant. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

David Esch of Aspinwall said he learned everything he needed to know about Ms. Fetterman last year, when her Free Store volunteers won the Jefferson Award for Public Service Team. Rather than go up on stage with her team to accept the award, she stayed in the shadows, allowing them to bask in the limelight. “It’s just how she’s wired,” he said of her generosity.

On social media, she fields a lot of vitriol from posters criticizing the fact she’s an immigrant, he said, adding that it’s unbelievably offensive and hurtful. But after many tears, she’s learned not to take it personally, he said. Instead, she tries to get her detractors to understand her point of view. “She just wants to do her projects.”

Leonard Hammonds got to know her through the nonprofit Hammonds Initiative, which offers mentoring programs to at-risk youths.

He can’t wait for the rest of Pennsylvania to become acquainted with her as she looks to expand her programs as the state’s second lady. Free Store 15104 has already inspired nine spinoff locations, and she also is interested in criminal justice reforms, especially making children’s visits to inmate parents less traumatic by allowing them to wear street clothes and meet in a warmer visiting room.

She also supports her husband’s 67-county recreational marijuana listening tour and has made no bones about being a participant in the state’s new medical marijuana program because of her own back pain caused by two herniated discs. She tweeted on Feb. 15, “I was one of the 83,000. Thank you, @GovernorTomWolf.”

She doesn’t care if you hold the highest title or are homeless, Mr. Hammonds, of Penn Hills, said. “She treats everyone the same and looks for nothing in return.”

Baby shower volunteer Cathy Welsh of Turtle Creek pointed to her knack for organizing and getting community members to work as a team. She orchestrated the event in just a matter of days because she has such a large network of supporters and has a reputation for building bridges.

The Fettermans, from left, Karl, 9 at the time this photo was taken, John, Grace, 7, Gisele and August, 4, take a walk Jan. 8 on the Westmoreland Heritage Trail in Trafford. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Not that it’s always about getting stuff. Ms. Fetterman also is very aware of people’s feelings and emotional needs, Ms. Welsh said, “even if it’s just a hug.” She got plenty after her 16-year-old son Jerame Turner was killed in a double shooting in November 2017.

Gisele Fetterman wears a pin that reads “Immigrant” before John Fetterman’s swearing-in ceremony Jan. 15 in Harrisburg. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Living in the lieutenant governor’s mansion in Fort Indiantown Gap, about 20 miles northeast of Harrisburg, Ms. Fetterman said, would not have been appropriate for their family. So her husband is commuting back and forth. It’s been tough to squeeze in much “us” time between her volunteering and the kids’ various activities. Just the other day, Mr. Fetterman said, they slipped away for a lunch of summer rolls from Green Mango in Wilkins. “But we ate in the car,” he said.

There’s no defined role or handbook for the second lady of Pennsylvania, a title Ms. Fetterman playfully refers to as SLOP. So it’s hard to say what’s to come in 2019. She’d like to see a more honest dialogue about what it means to be an immigrant in the U.S., of course, so people won’t see her and others like her as “that illegal.” Greater opportunities for the residents of Braddock and other underserved, marginalized communities are also paramount.

And she’d like to affect the food environment legislatively, so no one ever has to go hungry.

“If she’s got it to give, she’s going to give it to you,” said Free Store volunteer Jeanette Embry. “She’s teaching us all how to be a better person.”

Wedding soup is a marriage made in heaven

LOWELLVILLE, Ohio — Nancy Grapevine and her sister, Marilee Pilkington, have been making their mother’s wedding soup for longer than they can remember. Like any self-respecting Italian cooks, they think it’s the best. Award-winning, even, which is why on a recent Saturday, they braved a wicked winter blast that dumped several inches of snow on this tiny village along the Mahoning River to enter a wedding soup cook-off.

The starter that’s a staple at so many red sauce Italian-American restaurants is the highlight of a “Bigga Day” party that kicks off the Mt. Carmel Society’s annual Italian festival each July. So when members of the Italian men’s club were trying to come up with a new fundraiser last October, they decided: why not host a contest to determine who does it the best?

More than a third of the town’s population traces its roots to the Mezzogiorno region of southern Italy. Asking people to pit their families’ recipes against one another, said club president Dave Gagliano, who lives just over the Pennsylvania border in Hillsville, Lawrence County, would keep the tradition of Italian foods going.

That, “and we knew it would be a hit”  for the society founded in 1895 by Pietro Pirone as a homeless shelter for Italian immigrants. Especially since there was just one rule: Contestants each had to bring at least three gallons of soup to the club for the blind tasting.

All 20 spots were snapped up within three days, and the club also sold all 200 of its $20 tickets to the event, which included pizza,  hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction in addition to a tasting spoon and ballot.

Ms. Grapevine and her sister carried in five gallons of the soup recipe their mother, Mary Perry, used to feed to New Castle fireworks master Louis Zambelli  and his workers a half-century ago. They spent the entire day simmering and straining the broth, to which they added chopped chicken, miniature beef meatballs, escarole and the tiny homemade dough balls their mom always referred to as “hickies.”

 

What makes the soup so incredibly delicious, said Ms. Grapevine, is that they follow their mom’s golden rule of never putting garlic in the meatballs, and cooking them just so.

“You want your teeth just to sink into them,” she said.

The soup was good enough for the sisters to be voted runners-up in the popular vote. But it was  Ed Snitzer, a plumbing contractor who also runs an Italian food trailer called Jaam Concession, who took home the judges’ trophy along with $500.

The Youngstown, Ohio native attributed his win to his soup’s quarter-inch-square croutons, which are handmade with grated pecorino. “Pasta?” he said when asked about his competitors’ versions. “True Italian wedding soup doesn’t have it!”

A peasant dish born of necessity

Pittsburgh likes to call claim to wedding soup because of the many generations of Italians who’ve made it a must-have dish at restaurants as diverse as Big Jim’s in lower Greenfield, Delallo’s Fort Couch Cafe in Bethel Park. La Gondola Pizzeria in Market Square and Eat’n Park. The truth is, the humble concoction of broth with greens and meatballs is equally popular in the parts of Ohio with large Italian populations, such as Youngstown and Cleveland.

It’s thought to have originated in Naples in the 15th century,  before the tomato was introduced into Italian cuisine, though some argue it was Spanish cooks who brought a similar stew called olla podrida there a century earlier from Toledo and other parts of central Spain.

In Italy, says food historian and Italian food authority Francine Segan, the soup is traditionally eaten at Christmas and Easter because it’s hearty and makes an easy extra course. Where you won’t find it is at weddings. That’s because its original name in Italian, minestra maritata, doesn’t have anything to do with a bride or groom. It actually translates to “married soup” or “wedded soup.”  The green vegetables and meat  “si sposa bene” — they go really well together.

While today the dish is typically made with escarole or swiss chard, in olden days it probably featured puntarelle, a type of Catalonian chicory, said Ms. Segan; borage leaves also would have been essential in the greens mix.  There definitely would have been the tiny meatballs made from different cuts of meat that are so common in Italy, and perhaps also sausage and the chicken that would have cooked off the bone while making the slow-simmered broth.

And it almost always had tiny dumpling-like homemade pasta called Cazzetti d’angelo, which roughly translates to the private parts of male angels.

Because it was a peasant food created from scraps and leftovers, it’s almost impossible to find two recipes that are alike, said Viviana Altieri, founder and executive director of Istituto Mondo Italiano in Regent Square. That’s especially true if you’re comparing American versions to those in Italy; Italians grow other types of leafy vegetables and have cuts of meat that aren’t available in the U.S.

In a typical red sauce restaurant here in the U.S., she says, you would normally see it with tiny meatballs floating in a bowl surrounded by acini di pepe pasta. Back home in Italy, “you would make the broth with small pork spare ribs, beef shank, at times little pieces of prosciutto.”

Italian chef Lidia Bastianich  in “Lidia’s Mastering The Art of Italian Cuisine” crafts meatballs from sweet Italian sausage, while Giada Laurentiis opts for a mixture of pork and beef.  Matty Matheson, star of Viceland’s “It’s Suppertime!” bucks tradition completely by eschewing greens and adding golf-sized meatballs to the soup. He also trades the commonplace orzo, pastina or acini di pepe for a savory “lace” made by whisking a mixture of egg, Romano cheese and fresh bread crumbs into the hot broth.

At Big Jim’s, the preferred green is escarole, and the popular homemade soup includes chunks of chicken along with beef meatballs and sliced carrot — an addition that would surely drive Ms. Grapevine mad.

While the Lowellville native seasons the broth with the veggie, it’s always strained out before adding the greens and pasta. “There is no orange in the Italian flag,” she said.

A perfect assimilation of flavors and textures

Wedding soup is a forgiving soup in that any combination of meats and vegetables creates a warm bowl of Italian comfort. But there are some rules, says chef Michael Alberini, who owns an upscale Italian restaurant in Youngstown and helped judge Mt. Carmel Society’s cook-off.

Today’s home cook might not have the time or patience to make the old-style wedding soup he grew up with, and which took all day to cook using a variety of meats, homemade broth, pastina and a garden of vegetables including escarole. But with many quality boxed broths available on store shelves, even quick versions can create beautiful flavors and elicit joy, he says, if you follow four simple tips.

For starters, go easy on the salt. This is especially true if you’re using a boxed broth instead of making it from scratch. Don’t blindly add it without first tasting, even if the recipe calls for it.

Be sure to skim the fat off the soup before you serve it. What makes wedding soup taste so rich is the oil content from all the proteins simmering over a long period of time. If you don’t skim it off as it rises to the top, it will act as a barrier to the wonderful extracted flavors you’ve been cooking all day.  “If you don’t get rid of it, it really blocks the flavor profile,” he says.

Don’t go crazy with the seasonings. Spicy meatballs will overpower the nuanced flavor of the soup. It’s the broth that should be enhancing the meatballs, not visa versa.

Take it slow. As Americans, we’re used to instant gratification, says Mr. Alberini. So we tend to use higher heat when cooking to rush the process. But that disallows the proteins  in wedding soup to break down into a tender product. And the last thing you want when you’re eating soup is to have to work through a chewy piece of chicken or a dry meatball.

“You can’t rush the flavor of love,” he says.

And if you don’t cook? No worries. General Mills, makers of Progresso’s line of premium soups, has a winner with its canned wedding soup  in Western Pennsylvania. Exact sales are proprietary, of course, “but I can confirm that people in Pittsburgh are definitely eating more of Progresso’s Italian Wedding Soup than people in other parts of the country,”  spokesman Mike Siemienas wrote in an email. He add, “There is no doubt that people in Pittsburgh love it .”

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Image DescriptionWedding soup is a popular starter at Pittsburgh’s red sauce Italian-American restaurants. Its original name in Italian, minestra maritata, has nothing to do with brides or grooms. It translates to “married soup,” and refers to the fact that greens and meat go really well together.(Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette)

Italian Wedding Soup

PG tested

Feel free to substitute or your favorite green for the escarole in this recipe. 

For the meatballs

½ pound beef, ¼ pound each ground veal and pork,

2 tablespoons fresh parsley

¼ cup grated Romano cheese

¼ teaspoon salt

⅛ teaspoon pepper

1 egg, slightly beaten

2 slices white bread soaked in about ¼ cup milk

For the broth

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

2 large carrots, diced

12 cups high-quality chicken broth (do not use low-sodium)

½ head escarole, shredded  or chopped

1 bay leaf

For soup

2 cups shredded, roasted chicken 

1 cup pastina or acini di pepe,, cooked according to package instructions

Parmesan cheese, for serving

Make meatballs. Place all ingredients except bread in a large bowl. Squeeze milk from bread and break apart. Add to the bowl and mix until ingredients are thoroughly combined. Form into grape-sized meatballs, and set aside while you make broth.

In a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes. Add the chicken broth, escarole and bay leaf, and season with  salt and pepper.

When the soup comes to a boil, add the prepared meatballs and chicken. Lower to a simmer and cook with the lid on for 30 minutes.Taste for seasoning and adjust, then cooked pasta and cook just until heated through..

Remove and discard the bay leaf before serving. Serve hot with Parmesan cheese at the table.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

— Gretchen McKay

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Superior Motors demonstrates “Braddock is a destination”

Chef Kevin Sousa, owner of Superior Motor Restaurant, pours liquid nitrogen as he and his staff begin to start serving in the restaurant Thursday, July 26, 2018 in Braddock. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

On what some thought would be the one-year anniversary of its failing, Superior Motors in Braddock is humming along on all cylinders.

Even before the 80-seat restaurant across the street from Edgar Thomson Works celebrated its first birthday on July 15, it was named one of the best new restaurants of 2018 in the country by Food & Wine magazine. Chef Kevin Sousa’s exquisite modern American cuisine also has earned accolades from The New York Times.

In the process, the restaurant has created traffic jams on a once-desolate stretch of Braddock Avenue and put much-needed tax dollars into the borough’s coffers. It has made it less scary for others to do business there, too.

Patrons walk to Superior Motors in Braddock Thursday evening.(Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Just down the street, Crazy Mocha is developing a cafe and other food operations in the long-vacant Cuda Building. Brew Gentlemen continues to go gangbusters. The Mexican food truck Brassero now shares a home with Studebaker Metals in several connected structures that once housed the Braddock Free Press newspaper and Guentert’s Bakery. And just this month, Kristen Michaels of Edgewood and Gisele Fetterman, the wife of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, opened The Hollander, an incubator and co-working space for local women entrepreneurs in the old Hollander pharmacy building.

“Things are happening,” says Patrick Jordan, whose Barebones Black Box theater shares space with Superior Motors in a former Chevrolet dealership.

“It’s been a triple win for everyone,” John Fetterman agrees. “It demonstrates Braddock is a destination.”

Kevin SousaKevin Sousa, owner of Superior Motors, front, and sous chef Jack Martin, prepare dishes in the Braddock restaurant.(Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Pittsburghers might have doubted that the restaurant would succeed in such an unlikely location. Investor Gregg Kander, an attorney from Squirrel Hill who ended up raising money needed to get the project back on track after some bad press and countless construction problems, says he, too, would have hesitated but for the restaurant’s social mission.

In addition to hiring locals and giving borough residents 50 percent off meals, Mr. Sousa made good on his promised career training for Braddock townspeople. Four residents are taking part in a nine-month program that started in January, and he hopes to have an even bigger class next year.

“It fills my heart that it’s really working,” Mr. Kander says. “You just see diversity. And the staff has learned skills and” and has opportunities to go to other places.”

Superior Motors has dished up some pretty impressive meals in the process. The late Anthony Bourdain included it in a Pittsburgh episode of “Parts Unknown” on CNN, and Food & Wine magazine honored the restaurant in April.

Mr. Sousa never doubted it would be a success because of its history-making Kickstarter campaign in January 2014, which raised more than $310,000 in 33 days. That’s even when building problems put the brakes on construction —  it took three years — and drove up the cost to $1 million.

“What we’re doing is so ballsy [that] people just want to see it,” says Mr. Sousa, 44.

Most restaurants, he says, see their numbers level off after the initial hype of opening. Superior Motors does upward of 700 covers in a week, and many of his guests are repeat customers. Most are locals, but it’s not uncommon for some diners to drive more than a hour to get there; just last week, a couple drove in from Annapolis, Md., for dinner.

The restaurant’s success, Braddock Council President Tina Doose says, has helped to shed a different light on the community.

“It’s made it more inviting to some who would never have thought of it as a place for dinner,” the longtime resident says. And it’s added to the town’s growing artistic and cultural vibe, drawing newcomers into the community.”

Now, she adds, “investors know that Braddock exists.”

Count Mr. Kander among them. For his second project, he’s remodeling the former Ohringer’s furniture store building at Seventh Street and Braddock Avenue into housing for 35 artists. He also is raising money to create studio space and programs for artists in a second location.

“There’s a lot of buzz along Braddock Avenue, and Superior Motors was key in that,” he says.

Most of the Barebones’ audience eats at the restaurant before or after seeing a show, so for Mr. Jordan, it has been an especially good reciprocal relationship.

“We have each other’s backs and a true appreciation for what makes each business special,” he says.

The restaurant will celebrate its one-year anniversary Tuesday in its new courtyard with a “gratitude” party from 6 to 11:30 p.m. Tickets cost $65, and will include tacos and wood- roasted clams and mussels, multiple live music acts and a water-balloon toss. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Braddock Free Store, which was opened by Gisele Fetterman.

It precedes another neighborhood celebration. On Braddock Community Day on Aug. 11, the Braddock Civic Plaza at the intersection of Braddock Avenue and Fourth Street officially will open with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m. Equipped with free Wi-Fi and tables and chairs, the 1.1-acre green space will serve as a gathering space for residents and will accommodate farmers markets, food trucks and music shows.

Despite Superior Motor’s meteroic rise, Mr. Sousa has no plans to further expand or open a second restaurant. His only goal, he says, is to build equity and make guests’ dining experiences even better.

Leading a tour of the new courtyard, which houses the Braddock Community Bread Oven along with outdoor seating for the restaurant, the chef reflects on the past year.  He still gets choked up when he steps outside after dark, he says, and watches as hot blue flames shoot from the steel mill’s smokestacks into the night sky.

“I feel instantly transported to another time,” he says.

The backdrop of the hulking, belching mill, he concedes, might not be for everyone. But those who get it probably also feel chills.

“We worked really hard. More than ever, I’m proud to be part of it,” he says.

Finding God, and community, in a loaf of Easter bread

Slava Martyn never could have imagined that one day he’d find God, in Homestead, by baking bread.

With a pastry brush dipped in egg wash, he leans over the pan of uncooked dough in front of him. With the delicate yet precise hand of an artist, he paints the loaf’s bumpy surface until the entire top is slick and sticky with egg. Satisfied, he reaches for the next of the 20 or so pans lined up on the table.

It’s methodical work, making the rich and eggy Easter bread known as paska for St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church in Homestead, and he does it without talking. But you can tell it suits the Russian-born Dr. Martyn. He gets plenty of practice paying attention to small details in his day job as a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Just around the corner in the church’s brightly lit kitchen, laughter rings out. They’re a happy bunch, this small posse of women gathered around a stainless steel table with their Bulgarian priest, wearing the same pink hairnets as Dr. Martyn. They trade stories and laugh as Helen Sucevic dips her hand into a large container of dough. Grabbing a handful, the 69-year-old places the mixture on a kitchen scale and when satisfied it’s the perfect size, tosses the small ball onto the middle of the table. Another woman picks it up, rolls it into a skinny log, then slides it down the table to Dr. Martyn’s wife, Valentina.

In just a few seconds, she braids the log like a little girl’s hair into a thick, doughy plait, tucks the ends under, and then plops it into  a metal baking pan. Another plait goes on top.  After Dr. Martyn works his magic with the egg wash, he transfers the loaves into a revolving pizza oven to cook, 25 at a time.

As the bread bakes,  the egg wash will also, creating the Easter bread’s distinctive glossy sheen and deep chestnut color. 

Dr. Martyn, 52,  didn’t grow up religious. He didn’t even go to church until he, his wife and their baby son immigrated to Pittsburgh from Ukraine in 1996 through the green card lottery.  In the 1970s and 80s, the Russian Orthodox Church was severely repressed both in Siberia, where he grew up, and St. Petersburg, where he studied medicine.  While he believed in God, he wasn’t allowed to show it.

Then they settled in Greenfield. And Dr. Martyn’s mother, who’d immigrated with them, decided they needed to go to church. A friend told them about St. Gregory’s. The great influx of Slavic immigrants who came to work in the steel mills that once lined the riverbanks of the Monongahela saved their pennies to convert a Protestant church  below the train tracks into an Orthodox structure in 1913. They scrimped again when the new Homestead Mills claimed their land, and they had to build a new church up the hill on East 15th Street.  Something about the tiny parish just felt … right.

Within three years, Mrs. Martyn was singing in the choir. She says,  “God brings you to him.”

The couple joined the church’s paska-making crew a few years ago. They like how the word-of-mouth bread sales raise much-needed dollars for the church’s coffers, and upholds a cultural and religious tradition.

You have to give something back to God, and help a church survive, Dr. Martyn says.  “Tradition will disappear if you don’t support it.”

The pair had ready teachers in old-timers like Mrs. Sucevic of Baldwin Borough.  She’s been a member her entire life and has been paska-making the week before Easter longer than she can remember. She learned from her mother and namesake bubba, who immigrated in 1918 from the former Czechoslovakia to Colver, a small mining town in Cambria County.

She recalls how St. Gregory’s started its paska fundraiser 30 years ago with a member’s 100-year-old recipe, to complement the church’s annual nut horn cookie and nut bread sales at Christmas. Then the ladies got older, and making paska went by the wayside.

They’d start it up again about 10 years ago, when parishioners decided they weren’t raising enough money with their holiday bake sale.  They now sell about 150 loaves in the weeks leading up to Easter.

Recipes can vary depending on the culinary traditions of the baker.  Back in Ukraine, says Mrs. Martyn,  the bread is made with ricotta. But some ingredients are the golden standard: lots of eggs and butter along with sugar and milk. It’s a treat after the Lenten fast.

The bread itself is not terribly difficult to make. But it does take time. The dough has to raise before it can be divided into balls, and raise again after the logs have been braided into loaves. Then the loaves have to be constantly basted with butter as they go round and round in the rotating oven. It takes about four hours to complete the process.

The three parts of the braid symbolize the Holy Trinity, and there’s symbolism in the bread’s color, too, says Father Evgeni Peykov, who became priest last fall. The white interior represents the Holy Spirit, and raisins symbolize the blood of Christ and the wine taken during Holy Communion.

Many of the parishioners who buy the bread will bring it in a basket with other traditional foods to the church on Holy Saturday. That’s when Father Peykov celebrates Osvyashcheniye, or the traditional blessing of the meal to be eaten on Easter Sunday.

When your life is drastically upended, like theirs was when they left Ukraine for the promise of the U.S., it’s easy to feel cut off and alone, says Mr. Martyn. The church opened up their doors to them, and made them feel like they belonged.

In making paska, and keeping the Russian Orthodox traditions alive, he says, they’ve found a way to give back.

Late-bloomer running coach leaves no runner — and no funds — behind

Audrey Burgoon’s come-to-Jesus moment came at mile 18.

It was her first marathon, in San Diego in 2006, and her training partner of four months had just hit the wall. Seeing him falter, she burst into tears. She did not know how to run by herself. Her coach asking why she was crying only made her feel more like a failure.

Turned out, she was running so fast, she was on pace to qualify for the Boston Marathon. On her first race. She just needed to keep going.

She says, “You don’t know your potential until you push yourself,” a philosophy she’s taken to heart in the 100-plus races she’s completed over the past 13 years. She’s preached it to the hundreds of charity runners she’s coached to the finish at Pittsburgh Marathon events.

From participant to coach

Ms. Burgoon is 56, lives in Mt. Lebanon and is a textbook late bloomer. The Alaskan-born military brat moved all over the country before her parents settled in Pittsburgh in 1983. Sports as a kid? Never. The Penn State University grad took up exercise only in her 40s, after watching Richard Simmons “Sweatin’ to theOldies” in a TV commercial during a New Year’s Eve party and realizing she’d packed on some pounds.

She eventually worked her way through the entire library of his tapes, and the extra weight melted away. By fall 2005, she’d made so much progress that she hired a trainer, who one day suggested doing some track work at Mt. Lebanon High School.

So ignorant was Ms. Burgoon about running that she thought a quarter-mile lap around the track was a full mile. But she was fast, and her trainer sensed potential. She decided her new goal was to run a marathon.

A flyer from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society turned up in her mailbox on the very day her friend’s child was diagnosed with leukemia. For a spiritual person who doesn’t believe in coincidences, the moment was profound. She had to run.

The Pittsburgh marathon at the time was on its five-year hiatus, so her first race with LLS’s Team In Training would be in San Diego. It was such a fun experience and she was so good at fundraising that she eventually became one of the charity’s volunteer coaches. In 2009,  the year the Pittsburgh Marathon returned, she helped coach the team that would raise thousands of dollars through the first Run for a Reason program. She’s kept at it, raising more than $114,000 for various organizations over the past decade.

 

Charity runners, says Ms. Burgoon, often are stigmatized as being less serious than “real” runners, especially when fundraising is a way to gain entry into a race without a marathon-qualifying time. “But they’re athletes like everyone else,”  she says.

Helping others make the transition

Justin Schell of Squirrel Hill first got to know Ms. Burgoon in the mid 2000s when she helped train him for his first half-marathon in North Park. The lymphoma survivor had just left his job as an accountant and was eager to shed the 40 pounds he’d put on sitting behind a desk.

One thing that struck him about her was the amount of time she invests in her runners, even though she works full time as senior administrative director at Asbury Heights in Mt. Lebanon. She even cooks for her team, as weekend training runs always are followed by one of her homemade breakfasts.

“She remembers learning to feel the discomfort of exercise,” he says.

Still, if people complain they don’t have the time to train, she doesn’t hesitate to call them out, he says. In the nicest possible way.

Hannah Camic of Elizabeth Township remembers how happy she was when the soft-spoken coach found her at the exact moment of her breaking point during the 2016 Pittsburgh marathon.

Ms. Burgoon had become a coach for Pittsburgh’s Run to Cure Cystic Fibrosis team. Ms. Camic was born with the disease, which can cause her lung function to drop when she runs. By mile 23 during that race, unable to breathe, she was fighting for every step.

As always, Ms. Burgoon was running back and forth on the course, looking for strugglers. She told Ms. Carmic, “Know you can do this,” and repeated it as she ran beside her for the next 3 miles, until the finish line was in sight. Then it was back onto the course to help some of her other 150 runners.

That means she runs more than her runners do, sometimes up to 40 miles during a race. “I’m a running coach who wants to run.”

Double the impact

Mary Pat Joseph of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation asked Ms. Burgoon to be the nonprofit’s Run for a Reason coach in 2014. She doesn’t have to fundraise, but she’s already raised almost $10,000 of her $12,000 goal for this year — more than anyone else.

Ms. Joseph has experienced her work ethic first hand — and with a broken wrist — when she ran her first half-marathon.

“Her message of accountability and personal responsibility resonated,” she says. “There have been many times since when I remembered her words when I fall short.”

She lauds her coach for helping her and hundreds of runners attain goals they never imagined, all while helping further other causes.

“She teaches life lessons.”

Chinese New Year: Soul food is filled with comfort and symbolism

Stir-fried rice cakes/Gretchen McKay

Food has been central to Seattle food writer Hsiao-Ching Chou’s life almost since the day she was born, and it’s not just because her parents ran a Chinese restaurant while she was growing up in Columbia, Mo.

Gathering around a table with family to savor a simple stir-fry or plate of chicken-stuffed wontons ( which she first learned to fold at age 8) was the glue that kept everybody together, she says, as well as a way to pass on important family traditions.

“It’s just woven into our culture,” she says.

As a newspaper food writer and editor and later a food blogger who’s been featured on national radio and TV shows, she introduced many of the comforting recipes she ate as a child to an audience hungry for authentic Chinese food, and sometimes a little scared to tread into foreign waters.

Yet as she writes in her new cookbook, “Chinese Soul Food” (Sasquatch Books; $24.95) that hit store shelves last month, any kitchen can be a Chinese kitchen. Because at its heart, Chinese home cooking is all about being resourceful and adaptable. Many dishes, in fact, start not with a recipe but a quick survey of what ingredients one has on hand and what flavors one wants to emphasize.Chinese food can be daunting for many home chefs, Ms. Chou says, because so many ingredients and cooking methods are unfamiliar to American sensibilities.  This can be especially frustrating on Chinese New Year, which is on Feb. 16, which you might want to celebrate with one of the “lucky” foods served during the 15-day festival.

For beginners, that can prove vexing. Which is why when she set out to write her cookbook two years ago, she decided to walk her readers through each step of the process, from ingredients to equipment to techniques, in a super-friendly way. She takes the same approach in the cooking classes she offers at Hot Stove Society, an avocational school in Seattle.

On Chinese New Year, the focus is on foods with auspicious qualities: extra-long noodles  and rice cakes for longevity, whole fish for family unity, dumplings for wealth, softball-sized pork meatballs braised with heads of Chinese cabbage to symbolize power, strength and family reunion.

Growing up, Ms. Chou’s New Year meal always was shared with her surrogate family — her parents’ restaurant staff, many of whom were students from China or Taiwan. The food was simple, but there was plenty of it. It was a delicious reminder of home.

Now that she’s married with two children, her Seattle home is the gathering place for the celebration, with her mother, Ellen, presiding over the table. There’s a giant feast with a variety of dishes, and red envelopes filled with money for the many nieces, nephews and grandkids.

It’s like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s all wrapped into one. “It’s a really great meal, and delicious, and takes a lot of work,” she says, “but I love having all those dishes you wouldn’t normally make for one meal or only cook on occasion.” One favorite is a stir-fry made with sliced sticky rice cake, chicken and Chinese broccoli

Ms. Chou’s intention in writing “Chinese Soul Food,” she says, was to bridge the gap between what many Americans know as Chinese food and the traditional dishes you would actually enjoy in China. If you don’t own a wok, for example, that shouldn’t be a barrier to making a simple stir fry. A saute pan will work almost as well.

At a time when cultural appropriation is part of a national discussion about food, you may wonder if it’s appropriate to celebrate Chinese New Year if you’re not Chinese. Ms. Chou says yes.

“The more we can understand another culture, the more empathetic we can be,” she says.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412026301419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Stir-Fried Rice Cake

PG tested

This dish is one of the many comforting recipes Seattle food writer Hsiao-Ching Chou ate growing up. “Serving rice cake for Chinese New Year is symbolic because the words for “sticky” and “year” are homophones,” she writes in “Chinese Soul Food,” her cookbook that grew out her blog of the same name. “Serving rice cake represents a wish for many happy new years to come.”

You can find Shaoxing wine, Chinese broccoli and rice cakes (in the refrigerated aisle) at Asian markets. 

6 ounces chicken breast, cut into 1½-inch-long slivers (about ¾ cup)

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce, divided

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

3 cups chopped Chinese broccoli leaves, with a few thinly sliced stems mixed in

2 cups water

2 cups sliced rice cake

1 tablespoon hoisin sauce

1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine or dry Marsula wine

¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

½ teaspoon sesame oil

In small bowl, combine chicken and 1 teaspoon soy sauce and mix well. Add cornstarch and mix well again.

Preheat wok over high heat until wisps of smoke rise from surface. Add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and heat for 5 seconds. Spread chicken in thin layer in wok. Sear slivers for about 30 seconds, then stir-fry chicken for about 1 minute until cooked through. Remove wok from heat, transfer chicken to a small bowl and set aside. Rinse the wok and dry with towel.

Return wok to stove over high heat. Add remaining 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and heat for 5 seconds. Add broccoli and stir-fry for about 1 minute.

Add water and rice cake, and stir to combine. Reduce heat to medium and let simmer for about 2 minutes, or until rice cake becomes reconstituted and has softened.

Add hoisin, remaining 1 tablespoon soy sauce, and the wine, and stir-fry to combine. If it looks soupy, increase heat to high to reduce sauce, but keep stir-frying so that rice cake doesn’t stick to the bottom of wok. Add pepper and sesame oil, and give it one last stir before removing the wok from heat.

Serve hot.

Makes 4 servings.

— “Chinese Soul Food: A Friendly Guide for Homemade Dumplings, Stir-Fries, Soups, and More” by Hsiao-Ching Chou (Sasquatch Books; January 2018; $24.95)

Fueling a football team, the Steelers way

Fans line up for hours to see their favorite players at the Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

During the Steelers’ summer training camp, the Community Center Dining Hall at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe is the stuff big eaters dream of.

Indecisive souls feeling ravenously hungry could go crazy mulling its many menu choices, which features a cornucopia of lean meats and fish, garden-fresh vegetables, orb after orb of plump seasonal fruit. There also are five Oster blenders waiting to whirl fruit, peanut butter and protein power into liquid meals at a DIY smoothie bar. On the opposite corner of the room, a wood-burning pizza oven pumps out a cheesy 16-inch pie every 10 minutes. The dough is made fresh each morning in the kitchen, and most days there are at least three varieties to choose from.

There’s even a cookie table that would bring a Pittsburgh bride to tears with its tempting display. Last week, it included platters of peanut blossoms, Oreo cookies, chocolate-peanut butter gobs, gingersnaps and chocolate-chip cookies the size of small saucers.

Not that the players attending the 52nd annual camp, which continues through Aug. 18, indulge in those guilty pleasures.

Food is fuel, after all, and a football player’s body is his temple. As such, it’s all about clean eating for today’s training camp attendees, who are better educated than ever before about the cause and effect of diet and nutrition.

So the cookies, notes executive chef Daniel Keeley, who oversees the preparation and serving of meals in the college dining hall operated by Parkhurst Dining Services, are really there for the coaches and ball boys.

A daily menu outside the cafeteria at Steelers training camp in Latrobe.

“The players walk over and say, ‘Ooh,’ and then walk away,”  he says.

That said, a certain long-time veteran was spied licking a vanilla ice cream cone after lunch as he sped away from the cafeteria on the back of a golf cart.

A few years ago, Parkhurst added signs on the buffet tables that spell out the number of carbs, fat, protein and calories included in each dish. Players not only took note but also took it to heart.

“It’s extremely important to put the right fuel in your body,” says veteran linebacker Arthur Moats as he waited outside the locker room for a golf cart to ferry him to lunch. “What you put in is going to dictate what you get out over there,” pointing his thumb toward the practice field.

Mr. Moats, 29, sticks to what he calls the “healthy stuff” — salads, fruits and broiled or baked fish. “And I’m big on hydration,” he says. “You gotta have your waters and Gatorades, especially this time of year when you’re sweating so much and getting banged every day.”

On a day when it is a sweltering 92 degrees on the Westmoreland County campus, he also quaffs Pedialyte to replenish electrolytes and avoid dehydration.

Alejandro Villanueva adheres to a similar diet. “I hate to be this boring, but I eat a lot of fruit, carbs, chocolate milk for fast protein … and a lot of water.” That translates to at least four glasses at each meal. He also piles his plate high with his favorite vegetable — raw spinach. Lunch might include a couple of grilled chicken breasts; dinner is usually some type of fish, plus more chocolate milk. Also, he has bagels as a snack for quick energy.

At 6 feet 9 inches and 320 pounds, the 28-year-old offensive tackle and former Army Ranger can certainly pack it away. While diets and conditioning goals vary among players — some are trying to gain weight and strength after the off-season while others are attempting to lose it to keep light on their feet — NFL players typically consume between 4,000 to 10,000+ calories per day, or about twice as many  (and sometimes more) as the average sedentary adult’s requirement of 1,800 to 2,400 daily calories. For breakfast, for example, Mr. Villanueva eats not just fruit and oatmeal but also a three-egg omelet.

“If I feel hungry, I eat,” he says.

Players, especially the rookies, get guidance from team nutritionist Matt Darnell. But even with that expert advice, fueling their bodies properly can be just as much of a task as memorizing the playbook.

“You have to think about everything that goes into your body because at the end of the day, my body is what helps me perform,” Mr. Moats says. “So I have to treat it with extreme care.”

Linebacker L.J. Fort typically starts the day with an omelet stuffed with sausage, ham, peppers and mushrooms. A sushi lover, he’s especially fond of the salmon and other broiled fishes. But sometimes the best eat also is the simplest.

He gets his carbs up before practice with every elementary school kid’s favorite comfort food: the humble PB&J.

“I just want healthful foods,” he says.

Mr. Villaneuva says it gets a little harder to maintain weight as the season unfolds, which is why he considers himself lucky that his wife,  Madelyn, is such a great cook. Spaghetti carbonara is one of her specialties, and he also eats a lot of red sauce and tuna steak, along with the occasional Fat Heads IPA if he’s out with friends. “It’s pretty balanced,” he says.

The same could be said of the training camp menu as a whole, which Mr. Keeley and executive sous chef Brian Cable start planning in May, soon after graduation. Even though they’re responsible for three meals a day plus snacks, they take great care to keep it as interesting as it is nutritious by offering a rotating menu. For instance, potatoes are always a given but sometimes they’re sweet and shredded, other times they’re Idaho and diced. That way, players don’t get bored over the three weeks of camp.

The chefs typically build their menu off what’s proved popular at the Steelers’ practice facility on the South Side. But it’s never completely set in stone. Offerings are continually tweaked based on players’ likes and specials requests.

Some food items haven’t changed much in the 10 years Mr. Keeley has cooked for the players, such as the burger bar at lunch (with every imaginable topping and a choice of four proteins) and the massive salad bar that anchors the room. But the entrees have generally gotten more “clean.” with a focus on whole foods and quality ingredients. Today’s camp includes lots of whole grains and deep-dark greens such as kale and chard, and the kitchen no longer cooks food in butter. “If we use any fat, it’s extra-virgin olive oil in minimal amounts,” Mr. Keeley said.

Fried food also is a thing of the past, and meat choices now include bison and turkey along with beef and chicken. Fish is broiled, or ground into patties. There’s also a push to use as many local and organic products as possible from producers such as Rivendale Farms in Robinson, which provides maple syrup and honey to sweeten oatmeal and yogurt.

Mr. Keeley estimates the Steelers will go through 40 cases of 24-count Buffalo burgers alone during camp. And that’s just for lunch. Every night for dinner, the kitchen staff cooks some 150 pounds of beef tenderloin or hanger or flank steaks for the team on giant charcoal grills outside the cafeteria.

“They don’t go hungry,” Mr. Cable says.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Pasta Parmesan With Tomatoes

PG tested

This is quick, easy, totally delicious and has 287 calories per 4-ounce serving. 

1 pound penne

1/4 cup margarine or butter

1 garlic clove, minced

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for serving

Chopped fresh basil for serving, optional

Red pepper flakes for serving, optional

Cook pasta in 4-quart saucepan according to package directions. Drain, and return to large bowl.

Melt margarine or butter in 10-inch skillet over medium heat until sizzling. Add garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes burst and release their juices to form a sauce, 6 to 8 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss pasta with tomato sauce and Parmesan. Spoon into serving dish. Sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese, if desired, and garnish with basil and a pinch of red pepper flakes.

Serves 4.

— Executive chef Daniel Keeley, Saint Vincent College


Triathlete overcomes traumatic brain injury to race again

Megan Kruth still doesn’t know what sent her flying over her bike’s handlebars on Aug. 4, 2013.

The Ironman triathlete and 17-time All-American collegiate swimmer had done training rides on that stretch of Babcock Boulevard near her McCandless townhouse hundreds of times. But that Sunday morning, she probably hit a bump in the pavement. When her helmet struck the pavement, it split open like a too-ripe watermelon. The impact fractured her skull, ribs and collarbone.

By the time her ambulance pulled into Allegheny General Hospital, she was in a coma. Doctors weren’t sure she’d survive the surgery to remove a bone flap from the skull to expose the brain and relieve building pressure.

But neurosurgeon Khalid Aziz says that the then-41-year-old had several things working in her favor: the quickness with which the paramedics got her to the hospital, her youth and her extremely good health.

“But I also believe it was her spirit,” he says. “You could just see she wanted to get better.”

Ms. Kruth would have to re-learn how to swallow, talk and walk in the months of difficult rehab that followed. But no one doubted she’d fight her way back, says her younger sister Erin Kruth of Dallas. “There has never been anything that Meg didn’t do because it was too hard.”


Megan Kruth lived with her parents, George and Mary Lou Kruth of Shaler, for a year after her bike accident in Aug. 2013. (Megan Kruth)

With the support of many doctors and nurses, family and the triathlete community, “Iron Meg” has been able to return to not just swimming, but also competing. On Saturday, she’ll participate in Race for the Conch Eco-Seaswim, a 2.4-mile swim in the Atlantic Ocean at the Turks and Caicos. This would be on the 1,427th day since her accident.

The 44-year-old long-time second-grade teacher at Pine-Richland’s Hance Elementary is using it as an opportunity to help others who’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury, as afundraiser for Allegheny Health Network Neuroscience Institute.

She says, “Goal-setting has brought me back to what I love.”

Slow and steady

After her initial surgery, Ms. Kruth wound up needing four more cranial surgeries over the next year, including one to place a customized synthetic implant in her head after the first bone flap became infected. (“But I can go through scanners with no problems!” she quips.) Her broken collarbone, repaired with a titanium plate, required another major operation.

While she hated the white protective helmet she wore for months to keep from reinjuring her brain, she slowly got better. After 17 days in the hospital, she spent less than two weeks doing inpatient rehab at UPMC Mercy Hospital’s Center for Brain Injury before going home to live with her parents, George and Mary Lou Kruth of Shaler.  By fall she was jogging short distances; by Thanksgiving, her daily routine included spinning on an indoor trainer bike while FaceTiming with her sister Marcia in Florida.

Ms. Kruth, though, couldn’t always see that she was making progress. Plagued by short-term memory loss that sometimes left her struggling for words, she often felt frustrated or angry. Multitasking proved impossible. And she didn’t like being dependent.

“Doctors told us this will be a journey, not a sprint, and you’ll need lots of patience,” says her father, noting how just one wrong word could set her off into a rage.

There also were setbacks during the year she spent recuperating in her parents’ home. One of the scariest was a seizure during a Sunday walk at Hartwood Acres not long after she got out of rehab. Seizures occur in one of every 10 people who have a TBI that required hospitalization, so it wasn’t completely  unexpected. But as her sister Erin noted in a post on the CaringBridge website, it was a reminder that healing is a process, “even when you think you’re in the clear.”  Ms. Kruth would have three more seizures over the following spring.

Her family encouraged her with Ironman analogies: “Sometimes in training you get an injury and have to step back and rest a bit, Erin would tell her. “But you always get to the finish.”

“Yes, I went through a lot of extreme emotions,” admits Ms. Kruth, who still works with a neuropsychologist to develop strategies for coping. “But there also was a part of me that said, ‘OK, I’m going to fight for this, whatever it is.’ ”

One big milestone was getting her driver’s license back in September 2014 . That’s also when her plastic surgeon, Michael White, allowed her to start swimming again with friends, albeit very slowly and not for long distances.

After a false start in January 2015, she was back in the classroom the following fall, by which time she’d also achieved another milestone — moving back into her townhouse. Her students’ parents, she says, “were wonderful.”

All the while she was swimming. She now practices five mornings a week before school, with the Cranberry Wave masters swim team at the Rose E. Schneider Family YMCA in Cranberry.

It was team member Mary Anne Savage of Cranberry who first planted the idea of the Turks and Caicos race in her head last winter. Ms. Kruth decided it’d be a good vacation for her, too. She was ready.


Megan Kruth poses with fellow swimmers at Crawford Pool in Shaler on Labor Day weekend in 2014. It was her first swim after her bike accident in 2013. (Megan Kruth)

Because Ms. Kruth is such a fast, amazing swimmer, Ms. Savage expects to come in well behind her.

Training with her, Ms. Savage says, has been an awesome experience for the entire team. Not only does Ms. Kruth have a ready smile at 5:30 a.m., “but we all can learn from her experiences how to face things head on.

“Just the way she approaches each challenge is so inspirational.”

For her part, Ms. Kruth — who in 2015 was featured in acommercial for Allegheny Health Network —  says she’s just happy to be back in the water, competing, and to be able to give back to the community that gave her so much during the healing process.

Before her accident, summers were always about her. This year, it’s about the fundraising and she’s also volunteering at Mercy in the brain injury unit.

“It readjusted my perspective,” she says. “It brought me back to earth.”

She’ll never be the old Meg, says her father. But that’s OK. So many brain injury patients give up. His daughter never lost hope.

“Your life just starts over,” he says. “You appreciate where you’ve come from and all the new life experiences.”

Ron Molinaro has been obsessed with pizza most of his adult life. And not just your average slice, but the lightly charred Neapolitan-style pies crafted from a slow-rising dough and baked in a 950-degree brick oven at his Il Pizzaiolo restaurants.

It started when he was about 19 and visiting friends in New York. College wasn’t a great fit for the Whitehall native. But pizza? That was something a young man of Italian heritage could put his heart and soul into.

During that sojourn, he put the city’s reputation for great pizza to the test by eating as many imaginable styles of pizza as possible. When he hit Patsy’s Pizza in Brooklyn, something clicked.

He’d read about the shop’s signature thin-crust pizza months before in an in-flight magazine but had forgotten about it. But with one bite of Patsy’s classic pizza margherita, he discovered his destiny.

Made the Italian way in a coal-fired oven with fresh mozzarella, crushed San Marzano tomatoes and sprigs of basil, it was nothing short of heaven. Mr. Molinaro just knew he had to bring the concept back to Pittsburgh.

Over the next several years, he read everything he could find on pizza and pizza-making, and also he picked the brains of expert pizza makers from across the country. In 1994, he and his father, Ron Sr., built a brick oven in his parents’ backyard in Whitehall. There, next to the swimming pool, he practiced, pie after crispy pie. 

It would be two years before he felt he was good enough to open Il Pizzaiolo (translates to pizza maker in Italian) in Mt. Lebanon in  September 1996.  It’d be a family affair, with his dad becoming the manager after he retired from the postal service in 1997.

In a city accustomed to the thicker crust Pittsburgh-style pies served at Mineo’s, Aiello’s and Fiori’s, there were plenty of naysayers. But Mr. Molinaro knew he was setting a new bar with the neo-Neapolitan pies he made with high-quality ingredients imported from Italy. Plus, he had optimism of youth: He was just 25 when Il Pizzaiolo opened with its giant brick oven crafted in Delaware.

“I never thought for one second I’d fail,” says Mr. Molinaro, now 46.

He wouldn’t really hit his stride until six months later, after a  trip to Naples, Italy. “It changed my focus to  true Neapolitan pizza,” he says. That’s also when he added his signature pastas to the menu, drawing inspiration from foods his grandmother, mother and aunts made when he was growing up. His mother, Mazie, made the desserts.

From the get go, he says, there were lines out the door. It’s only grown in popularity, with Mr. Molinaro opening three more locations over the decades, along with the “fast-casual” Pizzuvio off Market Square.

“The quality and authenticity speaks for itself,” he says.

Easy to shape because the flour used to make it has less gluten, a Neapolitan-style crust cooks fast and hot — about 90 seconds in a blazing-hot wood-fired oven. But it’s the toppings, says Mr. Molinaro, that truly make the pies special. The buffalo mozzarella is flown direct from Naples every Thursday, and he uses canned plum tomatoes from Italy’s famed San Marzano region. The dry faella pasta, artisanally produced in a town just south of Naples, also is imported, and basil arrives still on the stem, ready to be picked.

Gnocchi, ravioli and tortelloni, conversely, are made every day in house by hand.

The key, he says, is simplicity. “You have to let the ingredients do their thing.”

He’s also a stickler to authenticity. In 2006, he knocked down the original brick oven in Mt. Lebanon so two guys from Naples could build him a new one over the course of a week. And he’s never stopped trying to make his pizzas and pastas better.

“I’m still perfecting it,” he says, sometimes working with his 10-year-old son, Roman, by his side. “I go to sleep reading ragu recipes, and wake up thinking about pizza. It’s not a casual thing. I eat, sleep and breathe it.”

Pittsburgh’s meister of artisan bread

Nick Ambeliotis never doubted his life’s work would revolve around food.

The Ohio native grew up working for his father, Mike, in the corner grocery store he started after World War II in Warren, near the Pennsylvania border. After graduating with an accounting degree from John Carroll University in 1982, he helped turn the store into the upscale Woodland Market and eventually ended up running it. By 1992, however, he’d grown restless and wanted to try something new.

He took a job with Euro USA, a leading importer and distributor of European cheeses, olive oils and charcuterie. For the next nine years, he traveled the world in pursuit of olives in Greece, spices in Turkey and elusive white truffles in Alba. But that, too, eventually grew old. After a “life experience” that led him back to his Greek Orthodox faith, he took stock.

“I wanted to work with my hands and be spiritual,” he says.

A voice inside told him maybe he should be baking bread and helping people. “Everyone needs to be accountable, or you’re walking aimlessly through life,” he says.

But he knew nothing about baking. So for the next 18 months, Mr. Ambeliotis visited the best bread bakers all over the world, taking it all in one loaf at a time. In 2001, he formed Mediterra Bakehouse. A year later, he started baking in an industrial park in Robinson with a natural yeast starter, called a levian, gleaned from a bakery in Paris. He had just a few employees, 10 varieties of bread and a handful of customers.

Friends, he says, told him he was crazy. Pittsburgh already had a great bread tradition.

But Mediterra would do it a little differently, with small-mill organic ingredients, slow fermentation, overnight proofing and hearth baking in the French tradition in a custom-built steam-injected oven from France. In addition, about 95 percent of production is done by hand using traditional techniques. For instance, bread rises in willow baskets covered in French linen. Dough is cut, weighed and shaped by hand.

“Each loaf of bread is touched by human hands at least five times,” says Mr. Ambeliotis, 56, of Robinson.

What further sets his bakery apart, he says, is the fact it’s grown into a family business. When he started, Mr. Ambeliotis mixed, shaped and baked all the bread himself and delivered it to customers in his car. Today, all four of his children work for him and in pivotal roles. His oldest son, Anthony, 31, is the production manager, while the second son, Mike, 33, serves as bakery and business manager. Daughter Nicole, 28, is a senior business manager, who handles marketing and social media, and her husband, Garrett McLean, is the sales manager.

Then there’s the youngest, Nicholas, who as head baker is responsible for scoring each and every raw loaf that goes into the 450-degree oven. The cuts give the bread its beautiful tic-tac-toe, diamond and other elaborate designs, and also controls which direction the loaves will spread while baking.

The company has grown organically along with its number of customers and sells in stores, including Whole Foods, in Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Today, the bakehouse uses upward of 25 different doughs for 65 different recipes. It also makes all of chef Michael Symon’s hamburgers buns with an Austrian roll machine.

Because he considers bread a gift from God, Mr. Ambeliotis tries to enrich as many local families as possible with donations. Mediterra helps feed up to 100 families each week through St. Cyril of White Lake Food Pantry at Holy Assumption of St. Mary Orthodox Church in the South Side, and it sends countless loaves to other charitable organizations.

In 2012, Mr. Ambeliotis opened a second bakehouse near  Coolidge, Ariz., which rolls out 5,000 loaves a day during high season. Taking advantage of Arizona’s dry climate and substantial sunshine, Mediterra also is in the wheat business. Thirty-five planted acres yielded 100 pounds of wheat last July, and 250 pounds is expected from this year’s 70 acres. Mr. Ambeliotis hopes to  expand to 600 acres or more in the future and build his own millhouse.

Mediterra also is in the midst of a major expansion that will double the bakery and consolidate its pastry business, run by Mike’s wife, Aundrea, which provides desserts and other goodies to Whole Foods, Giant Eagle, Trader Joe’s and high-end hotels.

It’s not about the money so much, but giving back to the earth and being the best at what you do, Mr. Ambeliotis says.

“It’s been an amazing ride and has kept my family close,” he says.

A different kind of runner’s high

As he lines up for Monday’s Boston Marathon, John Platt will feel the same jitters as every runner, plus a few of his own. Did I train hard enough? Will I make it up Heartbreak Hill? At what mile will I go blind?

The Moon resident’s feet always are numb. It will feel like he’s running in work boots. His eyes will be glued to the ground as he thinks through every step.

When the Kenyan elites float past him around mile 11, he’ll be battling vertigo; by mile 18, his peripheral vision will go gray. That’s Uhthoff’s phenomenon, a rare side effect of his multiple sclerosis.

“It’s almost like a storm is approaching,” he says of his temporary blindness, which kicks in when his body gets too hot. “It gets darker and darker,” to the point where he has to stop and stuff ice into his skull cap and arm sleeves to cool down. That brings back his eyesight and puts him back on the course. Until he overheats and loses sight again.

But nothing will stop the 42-year-old father of two — not the weather, which plays roulette with his symptoms; not his doctors, who advise him to not run long distances; and not his body, which fails him every day.

“You run free,” he says. “Alive. In the moment. It’s an entirely different type of runner’s high.”

His doctor calls him “oppositionally defiant.” That makes Mr. Platt grin.

Pushing back

Some 400,000 people in the U.S. have multiple sclerosis, a chronic, degenerative disease of the central nervous system. Mr. Platt was 29 and watching the Daytona 500 on TV when he experienced his first symptom in 2003.

“The world started to spin,” he recalls.

The next day, while driving, he suddenly couldn’t see to his left. He lost feeling in his legs, then his balance. Doctors found a lesion on his brain that they thought might be the result of a stroke or a tumor. It took 18 months for them to diagnose multiple sclerosis.

Mr. Platt will never forget sitting on a paper-covered exam table at Allegheny General Hospital in 2005 when he was told: MS.

“Life almost stops for a second,” he says.

But part of him was relieved. Now he and his wife, Aimee, had a name for the inexplicable symptoms. They could push back.

There is no cure for MS; doctors treat its symptoms and reduce relapses with drugs that suppress the immune system, explains Troy Desai, Mr. Platt’s neurologist at AGH.

“But it won’t make him better or heal the damage,” Dr. Desai says.

Over the next seven years, Mr. Platt developed new symptoms: fatigue, memory loss, tremors. He walked like a drunk. The worst was Uhthoff’s, which struck one steamy June day in 2006 when he was making a sales call for a freight company in a hot warehouse. Even small increases in body temperature cause him to lose his vision. He lost his job. He wanted to give up.

Deeply depressed, he retreated to his air-conditioned home (cooled to 60 degrees) in Moon. To walk, he needed a cane. He had a wheelchair waiting in the garage.

Raising money, awareness

Doctors often prescribe exercise to help manage MS symptoms, but Mr. Platt started running after a personal crisis. In June 2013, he lost a friend from his MS support group to heart issues. He’d flooded his systems with many of the same high-dose steroids. Her sudden death hit him hard.

“I needed to do something about it,” he says.

He went to his basement, stepped onto a dust-covered treadmill his brother had given him, and took a first step. He had to hold tight to the handrails, and it took a half hour, but he walked a mile. The next day, he took a few steps more than that, and the next day, a few more.

The following November, cheered on by his doctors, he walked his first 10-kilometer course around his housing plan. Then, he walked a half-marathon.

In 2014, he got his first real pair of running shoes and a new goal: to raise money and awareness for the MS Society by walking the distance of a marathon every week for an entire year: 1,362.4 miles, or 2.5 million steps.

“That’s when I fell in love with the marathon,” he says.

Or at least his version of the race.

He walked a marathon in April 2014 as part of Pittsburgh’s annual MS Walk. With his father, John Platt, driving behind him at 4 mph, Mr. Platt left his house near Olson Park at 2:45 a.m. and walked to Point State Park. It took six hours.

He decided to try running. He was neither fast nor pretty — he drags his feet — but it improved his health and gave him purpose. He signed up for the Pittsburgh half-marathon in May 2014, and the following September ran 33 miles on a treadmill at Elite Runners, formerly in McKees Rocks, to raise money for MS research.

Matt Imhof, Elite’s director of running operations, still can’t quite believe it.

“He was on it for seven hours, with no breaks,” Mr. Imhof says. “He is so much tougher than the rest of us.”

Mr. Platt next ran three full marathons, the first — and his fastest marathon to date — in Chicago in October 2014. By year’s end, he had walked or run 1,667 miles.

In 2015, Mr. Platt decided to run the world’s largest — the New York City Marathon. But the day before the race, he wore out his legs with his wife and two daughters touring Times Square. As he came down Fifth Avenue during the last few miles of the race, he was visibly in so much pain that his wife jumped onto the course to run with him a quarter-mile to keep him going.

“You can’t be here!” he yelled. “They’re gonna grab you!”

His Chicago time had qualified him for the 2016 Boston Marathon, as one of 50 mobility-impaired runners. Five months later, he ran alongside athletes with spinal injuries and missing limbs, including Patrick Downes, who had lost his left leg in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.

As expected, Mr. Platt’s vision went dark around mile 14. He lost 26 minutes icing down in four aid stations along the course. Still, the experience of running the “marathoner’s marathon” in under six hours was so profound, he couldn’t wait to do it again this year. But he would have to take a different approach.

During some race last year — he’s not sure when because he runs numb — he had fractured his pelvis. His doctor would allow him to continue running only with a trainer.


John Platt runs through his neighborhood this month in Moon. After two years of vision problems and balance issues, Mr. Platt was diagnosed in 2007 with multiple sclerosis, a disease that strikes the central nervous system. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Getting ready for Boston

Running always flares Mr. Platt’s MS symptoms, so he pushes to get used to wonky legs and a fuzzy head. He sweats buckets. Every so often, he trips and falls.

“I know every crack in every sidewalk,” he says.

His trainers press to make his body as strong as possible. Weekly workouts at Cool Springs Sports Complex in Bethel Park include weightlifting, speed work and battle ropes. Once a week, he strips down and slips his 6-foot frame into a negative 220-degree cryotherapy chamber to speed recovery.

Cooled to the core, Mr. Platt dresses, then steps into a pair of neoprene “Incredible Hulk” shorts that secure him inside an antigravity treadmill.

“These things give me a permanent wedgie,” he complains as he starts to jog. He’s quickly drenched in sweat.

His trainer, Jeremy McCullough, shakes his head and says, “I push him the same as any client.”

When the session is over, Mr. Platt holds up his right index finger. It’s quivering with fine tremors, a tell-tale sign of a flare-up — and of a good workout.

During Monday’s Boston Marathon, Mr. Platt, for the first time, will run with Mr. McCullough and another guide, Lauren Wentz. They’re there not to be his eyes, but to run ahead to the aid stations and explain his heat blindness to volunteers. They’ll stand ready with ice, hoping to shave minutes off last year’s time.

Mr. Platt understands that people think this is crazy. But as he has since his first step on that treadmill years ago, he’s thinking about his daughters Julia, 13, and Olivia, 11.

“I wanted to be active in their lives,” he says, his voice thick with emotion. “I didn’t want to be that dad that was inside looking out the window as they were playing. I wanted to be out there with them.”

Because they are significantly more likely to develop the disease, he worries that they might also hear the words, “You have MS.” His running shows them that you can overcome it.

“I’m definitely in a much better place because of marathons,” he says. “They really do change lives.”