Family Portrait: Matthew R. Whipple: Down-home cooking done right

“The greatest miracle on earth is the human body. It is stronger and wiser than you may realize, and improving its ability to self heal is within your control.”

— Dr. Fabrizio Mancini

Sounds good, but if you need a little help with that miracle, this week’s profile, dietitian and culinary nutritionist Matthew Whipple, is your man.


PGN: Something people would be surprised to find out about you?

MW: A lot of people are shocked to find out that I was obese as a child. They look at me and assume that I would never have had any problems with weight or eating disorders but I have. It’s been a challenge for me as a nutrition professional because people often feel more comfortable around people they feel are similar to them. They feel they can relate better, so it’s an obstacle for me that they can’t tell that I’ve been there too.

PGN: How old were you when you became cognizant that it was a problem for you?

MW: Well, my journey to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle has reached its 20th year. It started when I was very young and my parents got divorced. My mom had to work so I was at home alone a lot after school. As a kid of the ’80s we didn’t know a lot about health and nutrition, so I ate a lot of processed and junk food and by the time I was 14, I weighed over 200 pounds. When it came time to go to high school, I made a decision that I wasn’t going to be the fat kid anymore. I was very committed and worked really hard at it and, because I was young, the weight came off relatively easily. But that wasn’t the end of the journey for me, it was just the beginning, and there were a lot of pitfalls along the way. I struggled with disordered-eating patterns for a long time and it wasn’t easy to get where I am right now, which is probably the healthiest I’ve ever been. I tell people it’s not a one-shot cure-all; you have to wake up every day and make healthy choices. You have to make it your lifestyle.

PGN: How old were you when your parents divorced?

MW: I was about 4, so it was pretty much from the get-go.

PGN: And you grew up in the South, land of the fried, so it couldn’t have been easy.

MW: True, I grew up in swamp country — Houma, Louisiana — which is in the heart of Cajun country. It’s in the protected marshlands/wetlands about an hour away from New Orleans. In terms of its traditions, people and culture, it’s one of the most unique spots in the country: a mixture of French, German, Italian, Spanish, West-African and Native-American cultures, which all come together to make a really awesome and unique place. You won’t find that kind of thing anywhere else in the world.

PGN: One of my exes was from Crowley, La., which is in the Cajun parish of Arcadia, also outside of New Orleans.

MW: Yeah, we are the only state that has parishes. The first time I logged on to AOL — I’m dating myself — I was talking to someone in a chat room about the parish I lived in and she thought I lived in a church! Louisiana is unique in a lot of ways.

PGN: Family?

MW: I have a sister eight years older than me. She has three kids now, so I am a proud uncle. Both of my parents were raised in Houma and my father’s side of the family lived there since the late 1700s. My mother’s side of the family originated in Texas. People usually talk about their mom’s cooking growing up but both of my parents loved to cook. My mom was more meat and potatoes and my dad cooked more traditional Cajun-style cooking, gumbos and étouffées.

PGN: I remember visiting Crowley and them bringing us steak, mashed potatoes and rice and beans for breakfast.

MW: Oh yeah. A lot of the culture revolves around food. My mom’s a teacher now so I’ve been able to go back and do programs for her students about nutrition and healthy eating. She gets them when they’re young and enthusiastic so it’s really fun. I’ve done tours of grocery stores and other cool programs. It’s been good for me because I’ve been able to practice my skills.

PGN: Ha! That’s the first time I’ve noticed your accent — when you said “skills,” you pronounced it “skeels.” My ex only sounded Southern if she got drunk or after calling home.

MW: Uh oh, I’ll try to keep it under wraps!

PGN: Do you find race relations different in the South, especially in that area because there’s such a history of mixed cultures, octoroons, etc.?

MW: Well, I am of mixed race but I wasn’t raised really in a black household, so I didn’t really have a strong association with that particular ethnic group. But the area I grew up in was fairly mixed. I never really had problems with it until I got to middle school and even there it was more an inquisitive type of thing, people just wanting to know. I struggled with identity a little bit because people wanted you to choose a side; there wasn’t much use for multi-racialness. Looking in the mirror, I could see there was other ethnic make-up in me, but it wasn’t something I identified with.

PGN: What was something you enjoyed doing as a family?

MW: My parents took me to New Orleans about once a month. We’d visit the French Quarter, we’d eat at restaurants, go to art galleries, etc. I was lucky that my parents exposed me to a lot of culture because many of my friends never left Houma. Even though we were only about an hour from New Orleans, they never went to the city. They were afraid they’d get lost or murdered.

PGN: I grew up in Radnor, Pa., and experienced the same thing. I was always astounded at how many classmates had never been to see a play or to a museum in Philadelphia. They were also afraid of the city.

MW: Yeah, it’s crazy. But it was one of my favorite things to do. I didn’t even care if we went to a restaurant, I just enjoyed when my mom packed a lunch and we’d eat in the park, feeding the ducks and laughing. Both of my parents had a really good sense of humor and we didn’t need money to have a good time, something I really appreciate about them.

PGN: What was a favorite book as a kid?

MW: It was a book called “Dear Mr. Henshaw.” It was about a young boy who writes to one of his favorite authors and through the correspondence he learns things about himself. He deals with his parents’ divorce and his difficult relationship with his father. It made me cry.

PGN: Were you a sensitive boy?

MW: Definitely, I still am. I cry weekly, I find it very cathartic. I believe it helps remove toxins from your body.

PGN: What did you do after high school?

MW: Most of the people I grew up with went to LSU so I went to Tulane University; I didn’t want to repeat high school! It was a beautiful campus right in New Orleans. Originally, I wanted to be pre-med and study to be an OB/GYN, but because I was too sensitive it wasn’t really right for me. I switched to business school.

PGN: [Laughs] What makes a gay man want to be an OB/GYN?

MW: It’s perfect! We can look at it clinically plus I just love the thought of helping bring a baby into the world. But I couldn’t handle it if things went wrong. [Laughs] You don’t really want your doctor weeping as he gives you bad news. I started business school then took some time to work in the restaurant industry, which got me on my food path — combining my struggles with losing weight and the food issues with the desire to help people. I guess women can have the babies with someone else and then bring them to me to make them healthy!

PGN: What took you out of New Orleans?

MW: Hurricane Katrina. I had planned on staying at home. I was going to get a whole bunch of supplies — trail mix, beef jerky and a few bottles of wine, of course — but as the hours progressed, it became clear that this was going to be the big one. My friends and I decided that we should probably leave and at the very last minute we packed up the car and took off, thinking still that we’d only be gone for three or four days. I had three or four days’ worth of clothes and some snacks. You don’t expect that you’re never coming back, so I didn’t bring things like my birth certificate or Social Security card, things you need to get a new job and start a new life. The only thing that really woke me up is when my friend came to get me and was pounding on my door. Before we left, she told me to grab my pictures and that’s when it hit me that this was the real deal. It was intense. My parents were able to go there after six weeks and my car was completely underwater but luckily my house was raised and they were able to go in and rescue most of my stuff.

PGN: Where did you go?

MW: I stayed with a friend who lived in Austin, Texas. It was the headquarters for Whole Foods and back in 2005 they were already doing very progressive things with the local food movement, community-supported agriculture and sustainability. Things you were just starting to read about, they were already doing.

PGN: What story were you most affected by?

MW: Fortunately, most of my friends and family were in Houma so they weren’t directly in the path of the storm. But after I left Austin, I did an internship in Biloxi and I was stunned by what happened there. Mississippi is actually where the storm first hit, it’s where the 20-foot wall of water came in. They didn’t get the focus and attention that New Orleans did but the entire coastline was wiped out. Three or four years later and it hadn’t been rebuilt, though it was kind of nice not to have a Starbucks everywhere you turned.

PGN: What brought you to Philadelphia?

MW: I wanted to get more experience with agriculture, to see where our food comes from, so I found an opportunity to apprentice on a farm in Media. It was great. I got to work outside under the sun. Not that I would ever actually want to be a farmer but it was nice for nine months. The farm was under the umbrella of a company called Greener Partners that did a lot of educational programs, neighborhood events and school workshops, a lot of the things I wanted to do. I worked for the foundation for a while and now I’m working on my own doing nutrition and life coaching — not just the food element but dealing with overall wellness: helping people organize their lives in a more efficient manner to make it easier for them to make healthier choices. Everything from nutritional analysis to motivation, from designing menus to clearing out someone’s pantry and taking them on a shopping trip to learn alternative choices. I especially like working with kids, seniors and special-needs clients. My ultimate goal is to create and host a cooking show for kids. We would learn about different cultures, preserved food pathways, unique geographical and demographical dishes.

PGN: From New Orleans to Philadelphia … Where else have you traveled?

MW: Well, to complete my culinary-arts degree I did a three-month externship in Bangladesh working in the commissary kitchen of an organization that advocated for people with disabilities. I got to learn about the cultural and technical practices of Bangladesh cuisine in exchange for teaching about Western practices.

PGN: If you could have one object or place to yourself for one day, what would you choose?

MW: Reading Terminal. When I was a kid I used to dream about winning the lottery and having my own mansion with a supermarket in the back. I could walk in at any time and take anything I wanted. I’d love to have Reading Terminal all to myself. But I’d want a soundtrack of people talking and hustling and bustling in the background.

PGN: What was the last thing you ate?

MW: It was a chocolate caramel truffle from Whole Foods about an hour ago. It was one of the little samples they were giving away. You have to splurge once in a while.

PGN: Your partner is the dapper and debonair Adam Hyman. [We have to say that since he’s sitting right next to us.] How did you two meet?

MW: We were lucky enough to be introduced to each other in person, which is rare in this age of online dating. A mutual friend introduced us at a coffee shop and I thought he was dreamy.

PGN: What item of Adam’s would you like to get rid of?

MW: OK, now you’re trying to get me in trouble! I won’t say phone completely because I have one too, but perhaps some kind of timed lock on his cell phone.

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