Leonie McDonald had no idea that her life would change for the better when she was laid off from her job. What seemed to be misfortune turned out to be a blessing as she started cooking and discovered a vegan recipe for health, success, and above all, happiness.
At 64, Leonie has never felt better in her life. Born in Westmoreland, Jamaica, she immigrated to New York in the 60’s and when the blackout of 1977 hit, she moved again to sunny Los Angeles.
Leonie worked at a law firm as a national legal records executive for 30 years and was laid off one day because of company downsizing. Little did she know, what seemed like a misfortune would turn out to be a blessing, opening a door to a different life.
“I started cookin’ and it took off… actually my salary tripled; I’m in great demand!” she laughs warmly.
After opening Strictly Vegan, her own vegan kitchen, she found increasing demand for clean vegan cuisine at the numerous events she caters. Traditionally, festivals often serve fast and greasy foods like hot dogs, burgers, and pizza, but Leonie admits that vegan cooking is just as fast and much fresher and healthier.
Cooking vegan food isn’t something new to Leonie. She’s been a vegan for 26 years and isn’t tempted to turn back.
Before she became vegan, she ate everything except for pork. “Jamaica is very strong in Rastafarianism and a lot of people do not eat pork.” she said. “In Jamaica, if you’re not from Kingston (the capital city), you’re from the country and country people eat healthy because they can’t afford to buy meat, so they grow their own stuff.”
Leonie’s husband, Lloyd “Uncle Bread” McDonald, is a famous reggae musician and part of the Rasta cult. “They don’t eat a lot of meat, so in my house, we (used to) traditionally eat mostly fish and vegetables.”
Before going vegan, Leonie was asthmatic and had many sinus problems and health issues.
“I was more on the chubby side, because I used to just eat and sleep; I just didn’t care. One day, I decided I’m going to change my whole lifestyle and (since then) I have not been sick or had a cold in 16 years.”
If that isn’t enough, Leonie’s vision has changed – and not just figuratively!
“I used to wear glasses and I found that I lost my glasses, but I was (still) able to see! I went from a size XL at 189 lbs. to size 4, now 125 lbs. I’m happier. I don’t get as upset as often and basically feel very comfortable in myself. So vegans are happy people because they’re healthy.”
For those who aren’t vegan, Leonie highly recommends trying out tofu first because it’s so versatile and easily manipulated.
“When I cook tofu, I cook curry tofu, I add Jamaican spices to it like jerk (spices). I cook with a lot of ginger, garlic, green onions, and sautee it with bell peppers. Ooh, I’m getting hungry.” she laughs. “That’s like, the hottest (dish) right now because you can do anything to change the texture and the flavor if you use natural herbs and spices like curry, ginger, and cinnamon.”
Jamaica is an ethnically-diverse country, there are many different flavors and tastes in its sweet and savory cuisine.
“Our motto is: ‘Out of many, one people.’ You’ll find everyone in Jamaica: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Syrian, Cuban,” Leonie lists. She sees this as an advantage in that she’s able to create different combinations of flavors which appeal to a variety of tastes.
“Everyone’s flavors come together in Jamacia. We eat a lot of hot pepper, sweet fried plantains from Cuba and Panama, and a lot of stews and curries, which are Indian. I do the fried rice with brown rice, which is mostly Chinese. And I even do Spanish, Mexican tacos, but I do it Jamaican-style.”
While a number of traditional Jamaican dishes use meat, such as goat, cod, beef, and chicken, Leonie says you won’t miss the meat when there’s so much flavor.
But just because she’s vegan doesn’t mean she doesn’t get those fatty-food cravings like the rest of us.
However, those cravings are limited because of the many healthy vegan snack options available, like nuts, dried cranberries, and raisins.
“The only thing I crave is french fries, and when I do, I have to do research; what kind of oil do they fry it in? How often do they change the oil? Like In-n-Out, I need the fries when they first come off, give it to me, a little salt, I see how they make their fries, so I know they are good.” she says.
Above all, Leonie stresses the importance of freshness. “Vegetables have to be the ones in season!” She avoids using canned, pre-made and processed foods. She won’t even use pre-mixed spices; this way she’s able to control the amount she cooks with.
“Some don’t realize they’re halfway to vegan because (a lot of what they already eat) is vegan. “It’s just, you add some spice to it and make it tasty.”
Since becoming vegan, Leonie’s life has changed drastically. She’s healthier, happier, and much more stable financially, and takes pleasure in teaching people to eat and live healthfully. Leonie strongly encourages that people study food to know what to eat, and when. “You need to eat different things at different times because they do different things for your body.”
Leonie’s words of wisdom: