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Ralph Nader On His New Book Of Family Recipes

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Growing up in Winsted, Conn., Ralph Nader would often help his mother cook - kneading the bread dough, chopping fragrant spices to prepare dishes for the family table from his parents' native Lebanon. Never, he writes, did hot dogs cross their plates - instead, raw radishes and homemade kibbe bursting with the flavors of the Mediterranean. Nader is an American political icon who helped shape the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Clean Air and Clean Waters Act. But he joins us now to discuss cooking and his new cookbook called "The Ralph Nader And Family Cookbook: Classic Recipes From Lebanon And Beyond."

Welcome to the program.

RALPH NADER: Thank you very much, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is Mother's Day, and this recipe book starts with stories of your upbringing and the influence of your mother, Rose. You write that for your mother, food was, quote, "a daily occasion for education, to find out what was on our minds, for recounting traditions of food, culture and kinship in Lebanon." Tell me what it was like in her kitchen.

NADER: Oh, the kitchen was really a mosaic of - she looked at food as art, great aromas. And she knew she had our undivided attention as children when we were eating, so that's when she asked us about what was going on in school and what they learned and what was on our minds. And a lot happened around the kitchen that I think helped us as we grew into adulthood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She also had opinions that are today considered the foundation of good eating - moderation, fresh ingredients, lots of vegetables and children eating the same food as their parents.

NADER: That's right. She was a person of great intuition and judgment. And she knew that if we were allowed to whine and got attention, we would continually whine. And one way to avoid that is simply to say that the parents ate what we ate, and we ate what our parents ate. And we always connected food with health and vigor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The way that you describe these meals, it seemed like they shaped you.

NADER: Well, the important thing about it is they were all meals cooked from scratch. There was no processed foods. We never ate hot dogs 'cause our mother didn't know what was in them. And as a result, they came into the kitchen with a real aroma, and they didn't lose their taste. And so because my father ran a restaurant, we'd come home with bushels of peaches, apples, pears. And when you cook fresh, it's a completely different impact than when you open a can or you get a plastic bag full of mashed potatoes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about these recipes. You have all the sort of greatest Lebanese hits in the book, hummus and kibbe. But I was happy to see baked eggplant stuffed with lamb and pine nuts. It's actually one of my favorite dishes. It's fabulous.

NADER: It's so good that my mother gave it to me for my fifth birthday. That's how much I loved it.

(LAUGHTER)

NADER: There are two versions of it. One is with lamb, as you say, and the other's vegetarian. And my mother actually had this phrase - she didn't believe in strict recipes. She said, use-your-own-judgment recipes. So you could experiment with what's called sheikh el mahshi, which is king of stuffed foods translated. And you can put pine nuts in. You can put onions, parsley. And it's just indescribably delicious.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you write this book now?

NADER: Well, it has a long history. I was very active in food safety laws in the 1960s. And people would say, well, what do you eat? And later on, it occurred to me that it was easy to try to answer that question by putting recipes down. The nice thing about these Mediterranean recipes is, number one, they're rated among the highest nutritious diet in the world. Number two, the ingredients here you can get inexpensively compared to steaks and chops. And the recipes are pretty easy to put to work. There's a few exceptions, like the desserts, which I'm sure you're familiar with in your stay in the Middle East. They're very requiring of expertise here, like maamoul and maakaroun hushib (ph). But largely, it's a very easy do-it-yourself cookbook.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have spent much of your life fighting for legislation that are considered progressive beacons. And we've seen much of that legislation rolled back or come under attack under this administration. Do you think that damages your legacy?

NADER: Well, I think it damages the health and safety of the American people which I've worked for all these years. I think refusing to faithfully enforce the health, safety and economic rights laws in these agencies which Donald Trump has done gleefully and boastfully - he's disabled the occupation health and safety agency, the auto safety agency, especially the Environmental Protection Agency. And he's endangering the American people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: My last question is, what is your ultimate comfort food, the thing that you eat when you want to feel safe and at peace?

NADER: Well, I love lentils and onions. I love burghul, cracked wheat, which comes with garlic and little onions. One thing about the Mediterranean diet is because - it's relatively low in salt, sugar and fat. And the desserts - they can be fancy with sugar, to be sure, but they can also be dates and figs. And just saying dates and figs makes my mouth water.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Ralph Nader. His cookbook is called "The Ralph Nader And Family Cookbook."

Thank you very much.

NADER: Thank you very much, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "DEL CLOSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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