Best-selling books like "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser and "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan urgently examine the current state of food production and consumption in America. Issues like organic produce, factory farming pollution, free-range livestock, genetically modified foods and sustainability have taken a prominent place in our collective discussion. But for Woodstock residents Nikki and David Goldbeck, it's a familiar ? if no less urgent ? matter.
The husband-and-wife team has penned nine books on food and nutrition, starting back in 1972 when the topic was considered only of concern to the tie-dyed set. Time and corporate progress have vindicated the couple's books with a vengeance, but they invest no time in gloating. They continue to write about the subject of whole foods that will save lives and heal the planet while lecturing and giving workshops on the subject.
It is a rainy, raw autumn day. Speaking in the dining room of their rambling but comfortable home, the Goldbecks traced their passion about food back almost four decades. Married for 38 years, she is 60, he 65. The pair naturally finish one another's sentences.
In the 1970s, Nikki and David lived in New York City. He was a lawyer and she worked for a public relations company which represented major food companies. ("She was working for the enemy," David quips.) During that time, a revolution in food was brewing, driven by the rise of the counterculture. Youth were rebelling against all aspects of modern life, including the pesticide-sprayed, over-processed food now becoming a mainstay on supermarket shelves. Moreover, people were heading back to the country to start communes and grow organic foods.
"We were going through this whole processed-food phase which didn't exist before World War II," David says. "And people were starting to question it. The '60s, the hippies, brown rice, macrobiotics all these things were happening, particularly on the East Coast and West Coast. And we were affected by it."
As a new year's resolution, Nikki and David decided to dedicate themselves to a vegetarian, whole-foods diet. But only for a month, they agreed. The month became two and then four. Both sets of parents wanted to know how they found enough to eat in this meat-and-potatoes society, so David would scribble down the meal plans. Taking a town bus to work every day, Nikki would talk with a fellow traveler about her vegetarian diet. The woman was an editor at Doubleday Books and saw the potential for a book. Cooking What Comes Naturally offers a 30-day meal plan for the novice vegetarian. Nikki was a published author at 22.
The next book, co-written by the couple, was 1973's The Supermarket Handbook. Shrewdly, this volume brings natural food concerns into the mainstream, identifying healthy comestibles which are readily available in any mainstream market. which launched the Goldbecks nationally. Its concept was deceptively simple: reevaluate the choices available to the average shopper and focus on the foodstuffs that were all-natural and most nutritious. True visionaries of that era, the Goldbecks shone a light on issues now taken for granted: the problems of excess packaging, the plight of farm workers, ecological water and energy usage in farming and proper ingredient labeling.
"It was simply the right book, the right time, we were the right people and it was magic," David says. "All the stars were in line."
The Supermarket Handbook would ultimately sell 850,000 copies, launch the couple on ten national book tours and make them heroes of the counterculture food movement. They appeared several times on The Phil Donahue Show, an immensely popular daytime talk show. Nikki and David laugh when they recall the dubious conditions on the set. Donahue's New York studio lacked a kitchen, so the couple was forced to prepare the food in advance in their suite at the Drake Hotel.
Another major accomplishment was 1983's American Wholefoods Cuisine, for which Nikki tested nearly 2,000 recipes. Each day, she'd prepare five or six recipes for the book. Whether a success or a near-miss, the results would become their dinner. The book has remained in print for nearly 25 years and has exceeded sales of 250,000. Newsday called it "a vegetarian Joy of Cooking."
Their roles for each book are set in stone. Nikki tests recipes and confirms nutritional benefits. "I'm science-oriented," she explains. "I like research; I like things that make sense." David's specialty is extolling the political side of food issues.
The greatest challenge to their mission? "The powers of the food companies," David says without hesitation. Their enormous budgets power advertising which promotes false information and government lobbying which undermines governmental labeling and purity standards.
"We understand that we live in a capitalist society and that it is profit-driven," David says. "But to me, there are certain industries, like food, that just owes a greater duty to the world."
Urgent proselytizing aside, the Goldbecks remember how to make food fun. Their 2004 book Healthy Highways is a user-friendly compendium that lists places across America that offer healthy alternatives to the traditional greasy spoon or truck stop. Their most recent volume, created to stave off the growing trend of child obesity, is The ABCS of Fruits and Vegetables, co-written by local entertainer and radio personality-ventriloquist Steve Charney. It has already been purchased by school systems in towns around the country.
The Goldbecks take necessary breaks from writing books. David is a wood craftsman who creates art pieces and furniture. Nikki is a swimmer, hiker and gardener. For the past five years, she has volunteered at The Woodstock Film Festival. The couple spends winters in South Beach, Florida, where Nikki photographs found beach objects.
Such a staggering output over the years begs the fair if indelicate question: how does a husband and wife work together without placing their relationship in jeopardy?
"[W]e really like each other, we care for each other, we respect each other," David explains. "And there are times when we will argue over a word or a period, but we always find some consensus."
The Goldbecks have sold nearly one-half million books on topics ranging from conscientious shopping to kitchen design. But each subject, they stress, stems from a personal belief.
"Pretty much all of our books have come out of our own lives. We took what we were doing and put it out there for other people," Nikki says, "because we found it useful."
"We want to help people," David says. "It's just as simple as that."
For more information about the Goldbecks' approach to better eating and how to order their books, visit their web site www.healthiestdiet.com/ or www.healthyhighways.com.