Alchemy in the kitchen
Turtle Lake Refuge shares benefits of 'living' foods

Katrina Blair picks mint from the Turtle Lake Refuge garden./Photo by Ben Eng

A small revolution is taking place in Durango. It simmers quietly in people’s back yards, where they harvest dandelions, amaranth and other wild weeds. It gathers steam in a historic district alley, where up to 100 people each month eat wild and locally harvested, raw-food lunches. And in the nearby woods, where people are learning to pick and use the wild berries of summer – chokecherries, serviceberries, hawthorn – this revolution is on fire.

Katrina Blair, Durango native and founder and visionary of Turtle Lake Refuge, is at the helm of this revolution. In the past six years, Turtle Lake Refuge has been teaching people the benefits of eating wild harvested, locally grown and “living” (un-cooked) foods, all of which they believe decrease the stress on our bodies and the earth.

Blair is busy. Upon arriving at a benefit lunch last week at the Rocky Mountain Retreat Center on East Third Avenue, three people are waiting to see her. Someone needs to confirm a date for a fund-raiser; a representative from Food not Bombs wants to create an alliance with Turtle Lake Refuge; and a Fort Lewis student delivers an update on her efforts to get the campus food organization, Sodexho, to offer some of Turtle Lake’s tasty treats.

Blair’s work, life and passions are so intertwined that it is almost impossible to tell where work ends and life starts. She is a rare person who makes work appear effortless, lighthearted and continually fun. In fall, a workday is often climbing an apple tree (after gaining permission from the owner) and picking apples to be used in the Turtle Lake benefit lunches, served twice a week. In spring, tender dandelion leaves are plucked from mountain meadows and backyard weed patches (unsprayed) for pesto, salad or “wild weed power bars.” Blair admits that she loves to harvest food, and just the sight of her freezer’s contents – gallon jars full of chokecherries, fresh-pressed apple juice, serviceberries and the small, coveted bag of buffaloberries, all harvested locally – makes her swoon.

The mission statement of Turtle Lake Refuge is “To celebrate the connection between personal health and wild lands.” The nonprofit aims to create a more sustainable community by linking the value of a healthy internal environment (our bodies) with a healthy external environment (the earth). All the profits from their varied fund-raising activities go toward preserving open space and sustainable living practices.

Why local, wild and raw, and what does this mean?

“Locally grown foods minimize the resources required for transporting our food from far away places,” Blair explains. “This can mean buying from local farmers, picking apples, or growing food in our own back yards. Wild foods connect us to the land we

Tessa Canzona makes “Silent Paradise Balls” while fellow “cook” Gabe Eggers works on a tray of Flax Seed Crackers in the Turtle Lake Kitchen./Photo by Ben Eng

inhabit and provide one of the highest mineral sources available. At our benefit lunches we try to include something wild everyday, which could be a wild weed salad, hawthorn berry pie or yucca fruit salsa, for example.”

Her mother, Pat Blair, who was diagnosed with arthritis at age 17, introduced Katrina to raw food. The family would eat entirely raw one day each week in an effort to take the strain off their digestive systems and promote general health. Doctors said Pat Blair would be in a wheelchair by 40, though instead, she is free of arthritis. Many people come to Turtle Lake because of chronic health issues, including poor digestion and fatigue.

Eating raw food does not mean one is limited to carrot sticks and apples, as many believe. When grains and beans are sprouted (by soaking in water) they go from a dormant seed to an activated, living food with nutrient content greatly increased. Nuts, sprouted grains and beans are used to make main courses, shaped by the imagination of each individual chef at Turtle Lake Refuge. “Cheeses” are often made from nuts pureed with a small amount of water and miso and tossed with fresh spices and left to ferment a day or two.

Like the swankest of big city restaurants, TLR has no menu, simply one special of the day. Last Friday, Sissy Mueller served up veggie burgers, sweet potato fries, onion rings green salad and a slice of apple pie for dessert. Unbelievably it’s all raw, and thoroughly delicious. “It’s the All American meal ’cept good for you,” Mueller laughs as she lays down meals for a table of patrons. Mueller, who serves the Friday meal and eats 100 percent raw, says she’s been serving meals with themes that people can recognize, like the Italian meal she served recently with an all-raw lasagna: the noodles were made with thin slices of zucchini; sauce was fresh, local tomatoes; and the cheese was a “mozzarella” made from pine nuts and basil.

The daily lunch is determined entirely by what’s in season and what is available. In the summer TLR draws from many local gardens and of course wild land. The five employees and three interns (who receive credit at FLC) spend much of the summer harvesting wild foods and preserving them for the winter. Berries get frozen, juiced or dried into fruit leather. Foods frozen or dehydrated at less than 120 degrees retain their living enzymes. Greens are eaten fresh as much as possible, though large quantities of dandelion, amaranth and mallow – the highly nutritious bane of gardeners – are dried, powdered and added to the popular “wild weed power bars.”

The lunch clientele is as eclectic as the food. Young, pierced, patched and dreadlocked twentysomethings break flax seed crackers with businesswomen and grandfathers. As I sit and eat my lunch in the full room, topics among the patrons range from college classes to menopause.

After polishing off my All American with a slice of raw apple pie, Blair takes me into the kitchen where she needs to prepare several trays of chokecherry macaroons for the next day’s Farmers Market. The kitchen is small, and there is a lot going on. Mueller is still cranking out lunches (lunch is served from 11:11 a.m. – 2:22 p.m.), an intern is prying flax seed crackers off dehydrator sheets, also for the Farmers Market, while lunch patrons come in to hug the chefs, express their gratitude for the meal, and get advice, encouragement, support from Blair. She has time for everyone and everything.

As she blends chokecherries, dates, locally picked apples and coconut flakes for a batch of cookies, Blair explains some of the visions of the organization. She would like to create a sustainable living education center on some land, where college students intern for a semester, overseeing the property, while teaching elementary through high school students about sustainable life practices.

“Today’s kids have so much connection with packaged potato chips and TV, wild things don’t matter. If they slept under the stars, tasted wild berries, I think things could change.”

There is land in the Animas Valley that TLR is interested in, and Blair is not deterred by the price. After seeing TLR grow from a one-woman show, running lunches out of a tiny food court in The Smiley building, to a thriving organization employing five people, three interns and dozens of volunteers, she knows when the timing is right, anything is possible.

For the past four years, Blair has been teaching a four-week class called “Gourmet Living Foods.” In this class people learn to sprout seeds at home and create delicious, gourmet meals out of living foods. This summer Blair put a twist on the

Kyle Conrad, left, and Rachel Cooper, with baby Kahlil, cut and bag sunflower sprouts Monday at the refuge./Photo by Ben Eng.

usual class and offered “Living Foods on the Wild Side,” in which people learned to identify wild, edible plants and to prepare them right in the field. When asked if she has any fears of exposing so many people to wild foods, that they may deplete these resources, Blair explains that 90 percent of what she teaches people about and harvests for the benefit lunches are wild weeds, which are in no danger of being over harvested.

“What happens in agriculture today is a farmer plants one crop, after spraying the land with an herbicide to remove all competing plants,” she says. “Not only does this deplete nutrients and life from the soil, but it decreases food for wild animals and pollinators. When we plant our backyard gardens and farms organically, we can harvest the weeds that grow without any additional water, fertilizer or care, as well as our cultivated crops. Plus, wild foods have the highest nutrients so you don’t need to eat as much. I think the more we teach people about wild food the more we can sustain them and achieve a higher quality for life for everyone.”

Melinda Mical, a local nurse who works in cardiac rehab has taken Blair’s Gourmet Living Foods class with her husband and daughter. She has been incorporating raw foods into her life for several years and feels that eating raw has allowed her digestive system to heal and renew itself, as well as her energy levels to rise.

After getting the macaroons in the dehydrator, Blair discovers that someone soaked a gallon of oat groats thinking they were wheat berries, which need to be sprouted for wheatgrass. “Oat groats don’t sprout, so I guess we won’t have wheatgrass for tomorrow 85 but we could make cookies out of these.” Blair suggests. Gabe Eggers, another employee nods, “how about carob hawthorn berry cookies?”

“Yeah, with some fresh mint,” someone else suggests. And a new recipe is born. This is how life works here; when the floor drain overflows with water, you mop the floor, when a basket of cookies is jostled at the Farmers Market and each and every one breaks, you have samples to share.

When your life, your work, your passions are all the same, and you have a burning desire to share them, people pay attention. Word spreads; enthusiasm grows. There is a small revolution taking place in Durango.








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