Food for Thought
U Center for Spirituality and Healing senior fellow and food maven Brenda Langton shares a lifetime of insight on how what we eat makes us who we are.
“I WAS JUST A HIPPIE,” says Brenda Langton, as if that humble characterization explains the profound influence this organic food and sustainable source pioneer, restauranteur, consultant, cookbook author, and educator has wielded on the Twin Cities food scene for more than 40 years.
While most teens in the ’70s haunted the mall, Langton was busy devouring wisdom from older friends as they juiced, cooked, and launched a vegetarian cooperative restaurant named Commonplace in her St. Paul neighborhood.
“I was into healthy food at that time,” says Langton, then a student at St. Paul’s first alternative open school. “Then [the cooperative] opened up down the street. I loved it, loved the people there. I did everything—cooked, cleaned, took money to the bank, bought all the veggies. It didn’t matter that I was 15.” She learned the business so well that by the time she was 21, she had taken over.
It was the beginning of an education that would stick, advance, and proliferate. “College” for her meant spending nine months in Europe, visiting every market in every little town she had time for to study local ingredients. Thus inspired, Langton remodeled and opened Café Kardamena on Selby Avenue in 1978. In 1986, she launched the popular, light-filled Café Brenda, which occupied a downtown Minneapolis corner until 2009. In 2006, when the Guthrie Theater relocated near the Mississippi River, she opened Spoonriver next door and a Saturday morning Mill City Farmers’ Market on the adjacent plaza.
Even after a lifetime spent with food, Langton plans to stay on that path, including sharing her unique perspective with others through the U of M.
For more than a decade, Langton has taught a multi-week, nine-hour cooking class, now called Inspired Cooking for Healthy Lives, at the University’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.
“Brenda was one of our first senior fellows,” says CSH Director Mary Jo Kreitzer. “Nutrition is so important to our health and well-being, yet people are lacking in both nutrition literacy and knowing how to prepare food. The class focuses on the what, why, and how of healthy eating.”
A vegetarian early on, Langton remembers “lots of brown casseroles—nuts, seeds, protein powder” in her younger days. “But food has changed for me,” she says. “Now I pay much more attention to texture and freshness and colors and balance, and getting enough nutrients and protein.” Meat, which once helped her heal from surgery, now has an occasional place at her table, as does a nice glass of red wine.
Nutritional science also informs her menus. “Now, thankfully, they’re discovering the importance of the gut biome,” Langton says. “If we don’t have healthy gut flora, we’ll have more issues with what we digest.” She recommends choosing organic bread and pasta, suggesting that many of those who now seek gluten-free foods may be more sensitive to the chemicals used to treat wheat than to wheat itself. She also replaces canola with sunflower, sesame, and coconut oils because she believes they are healthier, especially for aging eaters who need more fats and good oils.
While Langton cooks during her classes, licensed nutritionist Carolyn Denton, who teaches at the Center, offers color commentary, supplying tidbits about phytonutrients and detoxifiers, along with a dollop of humor. “Part of my job is to tease her,” says Denton, who teaches functional nutrition. “What makes her such a good teacher is that she’s like your sister. Here’s this award-winning, high-caliber chef who is just the most wonderful, normal person. She makes cooking seem so simple.”
Kreitzer agrees. “Brenda is not only incredibly knowledgeable, but also so much fun. She offers such real-world wisdom that people leave inspired.”
“By being in the community day in and day out, serving hundreds of meals to our guests, I know how very important it is for people to taste and experience and appreciate what a good, natural food meal is and can be,” Langton says. “It makes them feel good for the day. [That’s why] the farmers’ market is a very important piece of my journey. It’s reaching out to the community, and it’s an extension of my belief that food is medicine.”