Jessica Goldman Foung is a vibrant young woman, excited about life, happily married and the mother of a beautiful baby girl.
It’s hard to believe that a decade ago, shortly after her 21st birthday, she was hospitalized with an aggressive form of lupus and told she had only days to live.
Goldman Foung survived, but her kidneys were severely compromised. She was in the hospital for three months; she had chemotherapy, went on dialysis and was placed on the kidney transplant list. And she was told to cut salt out of her diet. Forever.
Some people would have resigned themselves to a lifetime of boring food. But not this girl.
“I was alive, but I wanted to live,” said the San Francisco resident. “I decided to do everything in my power to be healthy.”
Looking around, she found there was very little on the market for low-sodium diets, and what existed “was geared toward older people,” she said. “Like geriatric care in this country, it was writing off these people. Just making do.”
Goldman Foung was having none of it. She wanted to celebrate life, not become a victim of her diagnosis. In her usual upbeat style, she recalled, “I focused on rewriting the rules, turning nos into yeses.”
On Feb. 14, at a book launch party in San Francisco’s Mission District, Goldman Foung unveiled the results of her work: “Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook: How to Lose the Salt and Eat the Foods You Love.”
She’ll be speaking about her book at two events next week in San Francisco.
Her cookbook is filled with nutritional information, inspirational narrative and tantalizing recipes any foodie would be proud to serve: soups and salads, quiches and cakes, homemade pickles and her personal favorite — hot and spicy Buffalo wings.
Without salt? Sure, she says. In her kitchen, herbs, vinegar, reduced-vegetable stocks, and a host of naturally flavorful edibles stand in where the salt shaker once reigned. And because she’s who she is — unstoppable — Goldman Foung enlisted a host of local chefs in her creative enterprise.
“At first we thought, how can you cook without salt?” said Josip Martinovic, chef with McCalls Catering in San Francisco. “Then we took it as a challenge. We used different herbs to punch up the flavor. I’m from Croatia, so I used Mediterranean techniques, herbs and spices from Morocco.”
Martinovic’s partner, Lucas Schoemaker, notes that about 10 percent of their customers have some kind of special dietary request. Many are gluten-free, others are nut-free, and now low-sodium requests are becoming more frequent. “More and more, chefs are adapting to it,” he said.
That’s exactly the point, says Goldman Foung. There’s no need for people on sodium-restricted diets to feel they’re second-class. Just as vegetarians, vegans, those with allergies and, yes, the kosher-observant, now feel they can demand tasty food with no apologies, so should those who can’t tolerate sodium.
Not a natural cook when she set out, Goldman Foung grabbed an apron and headed for the kitchen. She tried and failed more times than she can count. Baking without salt was hard, she admits, but her most spectacular failure was finding a substitute for bacon. She tried to cure raw pork belly using bonito flakes, but after leaving it in the fridge for a week, “all I got was week-old pork belly. My stomach did not like it,” she said.
But, she adds, “It’s amazing how many things I’ve been able to recreate.”
Jewish holidays were next. Passover presented not only culinary hurdles but the added challenge of cooking meals that her friends and family would be happy to share. “Passover was one of the first meals where I had to figure out how to eat well, and be able to share it with everyone else,” she said.
The result? How about a rich chicken broth flavored with a bouquet of fresh herbs, garlic and leeks, and then reduced down so the natural saltiness of the chicken bones comes out? That’s in her book, on the page preceding a delicious roasted garlic, fennel and corn chowder.
Goldman Foung took her discoveries and started sharing them. She seems to have tapped into something in the food world — she has been widely interviewed, and in 2012 Saveur magazine named her food blog, SodiumGirl, one of the best of the year.
In addition to her newfound interest in nutrition and fine cuisine, Goldman Foung is also active in the sustainable food movement. That initially posed a conundrum, particularly to someone raised in such a philanthropic family (her parents are John and Marcia Goldman, and her grandparents are the late Richard and Rhoda Goldman, noted Bay Area philanthropists all). “How could I in good conscience tell people to use good local produce when most people can’t afford it?” she wondered. One way is by donating a portion of her royalties to Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit dedicated to making locally grown produce more affordable and accessible.
Another way is to look at the long-term effects of encouraging people with kidney damage, hypertension and other salt-related conditions to become healthy through eating better, thus reducing the burden on the health care system. Goldman Foung has done it herself: After a year of keeping to her strict diet, she was taken off dialysis; soon after, she was removed from the kidney transplant list as well. Her doctors can’t explain it.
“If we can change the conversation about low-sodium, we can save billions of dollars,” she said. Listening to Goldman Foung, it’s clear that for her, this diet is a celebration of life. And for someone who was told she could never have a child, her daughter, Nomi, is another.
“She’s such a blessing, and another example of how you can let these things stop you, or you can make what you want of the experience,” said Goldman Foung. “Sometimes hardships end up opening you to new adventures.”
“Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook” by Jessica Goldman Foung (256 pages, John Wiley and Sons, $24.99)
The author will speak at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 3 at Omnivore Books, 3885 Cesar Chavez St., S.F.. Free. She will give a reading and demonstration at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 4 at 18 Reasons, 3674 18th St., S.F. $25-$35. www.sodiumgirl.com