It’s hard, at first glance, to take seriously a cookbook on the wildly trendy topic of allergy-free foods written by two strikingly blonde, middle-aged sisters who’ve been proudly calling themselves the “Double Energy Twins” since they were 16 years old.
But when you open the book to find straightforward explanations of food allergies, handy guides to the eight usual culprits (milk, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nut, soy, fish, and shellfish), and, most importantly, very easy-to-follow recipes that still sound tasty, you think twice. Then you realize Santa Barbara residents Judi and Shari Zucker have already graced the stages of Good Morning America and The Today Show, and an interview sounds worthwhile.
And the cake gets iced during that conversation, when you learn that the Double Energy Twins are actually quite down-to-earth, self-deprecating, and impassioned about helping others lead healthy lives, which they’ve done over the course of six books. What follows is our telephone conversation, edited for clarity and length.
It seems you two are already pretty famous — The Today Show, Good Morning America…
Shari: We love The Santa Barbara Independent. It’s the best paper in town.
Judi: It’s what the locals read.
This is your sixth book now. So how’d you get into cookbooks?
Shari: We wrote our first book when we were 16 years old, How to Survive Snack Attacks Naturally. It started because we were running cross-country and track at Beverly Hills High School, and our mother was our total inspiration: She’s the worst cook in the world, and it was survival. We took her old Betty Crocker books that she never used, and we started revising the recipes. We would make a pie, and instead of using white flour and Crisco, we would use olive oil and whole grain flour. We came up with recipes, stuck them in a drawer, and in our senior year, our father said, “What are you gonna do with the recipes?”
Judi: We wanted to call the book “Snack Attack,” but our father, who is a public relations man, said, “You need a catchier title, like How to Survive Snack Attacks Naturally, and we’ll call you the Double Energy Twins.” Of course, Shari and I were thinking, “How corny…”
Shari: Then we ended up having that trademarked. Even as we got married and became parents, we are still the Double Energy Twins. That’s us: Bing and Bang.
Judi: We have our dad to thank to that. He’s still in Beverly Hills in the same house we grew up in. Our father has a lot of energy for 87, and is still in public relations.
What brought you to Santa Barbara?
Shari: When we were growing up, my parents would come and vacation here, and I said, “I’m going to college there.” We never thought we would go to the same college, so Judi went up to UC Davis to major in nutrition and I went to UCSB. This is the truth: the guys were so hot at UCSB, I said to Judi, “You’ve got to come down here.”
Judi: And I got an immediate transfer. Being identical twins, we were always known as one of the twins, so we knew we wanted to go to college somewhere different. We both really wanted UCSB but we didn’t want to go to college and be known as “the twins.” We wanted to experience life on our own. So we flipped for it. I got UC Davis. But I got the transfer and graduated from UCSB and my daughter Taryn is at UCSB right now. We’re addicted to Santa Barbara.
Shari: Once we graduated from college, we said, “We’re gonna live here.”
And then you started publishing more books?
Judi: This is how crazy it is. In the world of publishing, you usually have to get a literary agent and get a million rejections. That’s the real world. But we were 16 and our father submitted to one publisher and the publisher loved it. That was Woodbridge Press in Santa Barbara. That was amazing. The next book was Hot to Eat Without Meat Naturally, and we did that at UCSB. We just kept graduating to different publishers. Right now, Square One is our favorite publishing house. They are out of New York, so they have a professional, big public relations firm.
When did the focus shift to allergies?
Judi: We’ve always felt our purpose in life was to inspire others to live a healthy lifestyle.
Shari: And educate them.
Judi: We really are bursting with energy. We don’t even drink coffee and we’re through the ceiling. But as far as the allergies were concerned, there were two things that inspired us. When we submitted our book about snacks to Square One, they said they loved the concept but would we consider doing a book on food allergies? It was funny, because when we were doing book signings, people would say, “I’ve got celiac, I’ve got gluten intolerance,” and people were curious online. We thought, “Can we modify this?”
Shari: I hate to interject…
Judi: Oh you do? You’re very good at it.
Shari: Too bad you don’t see us in person. We’re pretty entertaining.
Judi: In your mind….
Shari: Well, we do have a website and people would write us, “I know you’re vegetarians, but what about vegan?” Ironically, a lot of the vegan aspect is very similar to the top eight allergens which we now incorporated into two books.
Judi: To make it more concise, the publisher asked us if we would consider making it allergy-free, and my son was having headaches. After I started writing this book, I thought, “You know what? He has a food allergy.” Food can heal you or harm you. I took him to a blood test, and he was highly intolerant of gluten and cacein [in eggs]. I took him off, and within 24 hours, his headaches went away.
What does your book have that others do not?
Judi: We’ve noticed that a lot of the allergy-free cookbooks still have sugar in them and meat. That’s always startling to us. It’s frustrating.
Shari: So we incorporated the whole vegetarian aspect, because we believe so strongly in a plant-based diet. And we also brought up GMOs early on.
Judi: We were way ahead on that. We felt there was a connection with food allergies and GMOs, and there is, because a Monsanto herbicide called glycophosphate is a chemical that causes people to get allergic reactions to their food.
Shari: We’re not afraid to say this: Shame on Monsanto and Round-Up. Seriously.
Judi: We’re real advocates of buying local and buying organic and buying seasonal.
Shari: When you start fiddling with Mother Nature and start making frankenfoods, how do you expect us to digest this properly? The wheat that is GMO has more gluten in it, so it’s even harder for people who have an intolerance to digest that. And 90 percent of all corn and soy is genetically modified. You’re slowly but surely having more people who are allergic to corn.
Why do you think there’s been a rise of food allergies?
Shari: There is the hygiene hypothesis, which basically says we have a world that’s so sanitized our children don’t go outside to play anymore and build up their immunity. So we need to build up our immunity. Also, years ago, people weren’t diagnosed properly. They were told they had something else, but they had a food allergy. And the biggest reason for food allergies is genetic. Often, if a kid has eczema or psoriasis, there’s a good chance they have a food allergy.
Judi: Parents are also paranoid and introducing foods later, so kids are not building a tolerance.
Any Santa Barbara restaurant recommendations?
Judi: One that recently opened is Boochies. They have vegan and very creative recipes, like using coconut flour, and the wonderful lady, Rebecca.
Shari: The Wine Bistro in Montecito is making gluten-free pasta.
Judi: Sojourner is a classic, with health-oriented and some gluten-free dishes. Whole Foods and Lazy Acres have great gluten-free stuff in their delis. There’s Silvergreens that has some gluten-free and quinoa, and they even address it right on their menu. There are a lot of places saying they can do this, but people with serious reactions have to be careful. Sometimes chefs do cross-contaminate.
What else do you like to do in Santa Barbara?
Judi: We are very health conscious. At the crack of dawn, when the animals and the vermin are up, you can see Shari and I running in the morning. We exercise every day.
Shari: Judi lives in her home, and I live in my home, and we are married and have our own children and live our own lives. But every day, we get up and run about an hour and 15 minutes, and after running we swim for 45 minutes a day. So we run, we swim, and we walk every day. We consider that our cup of coffee. If we did drink coffee, you would really have trouble keeping up with us.
Judi: We don’t really watch TV, so when people are watching TV at night, we exercise.
Shari: The proof is in the pudding. I have twins that are 25 now, and they not only run marathons, they run ultramarathons. We raised our kids as vegetarian and teaching that you only have one body in this life. If there is anything we can tell the younger generation, it’s that it will catch up to you — if you think you can lead a certain lifestyle that’s not so healthy, you will feel it. We sit here in the ripe age of 53 — we’re 106 together — and we feel pretty darn good. We’re able to do what we’re doing because we take care of ourselves.
Judi: To us, beautiful is healthy. When someone says you look healthy, we take it as the best compliment ever.
Are your husbands vegetarian too?
Shari: I married a Minnesotan from meat and potato country, a Danish Viking. He still eats meat on occasion, but at home there is no meat and he doesn’t miss it at all.
Judi: My husband is a dentist, Dr. Chris Mjelde. He eats whatever is in the fridge, and we don’t have meat in the house. But I have to admit, when we go to a restaurant, I think he gets a little excited, because he’ll order something with meat in it.
There are a lot of both positive and negative trends in nutrition right now. Do you think we are moving in the right direction overall?
Shari: First of all, Judi and I are cockeyed optimists, so you’ll never hear us take the negative aspect. We are just innately positive people.
Judi: But I do definitely believe that, while we’re bombarded by big companies that have a lot of money to advertise sugar, cereals, and meat products, people are smarter than that. I’m giving people more credit, especially in Santa Barbara. People are buying healthier food and making healthier choices.
Shari: This is a different era than when we grew up. We’re in a fast-response society. People just want things instantly. But I’m optimistic because we do have an epidemic of health crises, and people are starting to realize that they can’t just keep giving themselves a pill.
Judi: They’re sick of being sick.
Shari: They’re sick of feeling like crap. People want to feel good.
Judi: That was Shari. Shari has the bad mouth. Judi uses more discretion.
Judi and Shari Zucker’s The Ultimate Allergy-Free Cookbook is available at Chaucer’s, Granada Books, and other stores. See doubleenergytwins.com.