Insider Profiles
Inspiring Fresh Eats in the City of Meat
"Let me show you how vegetable epicuria can have as powerful pleasurable moan-inducing potential as the meat-centric kind."

Leah Lizarondo is a vegetarian who seeks out organic, locally grown produce, some of it so local she can pluck it from the urban farm in her Stanton Heights backyard.

But she wasn't always such a virtuous eater. In fact, she was once a bacon-snarfing, sweets-craving, processed-food junkie who snuck spoonfuls of Spam during her first pregnancy.

It was during the pregnancy that she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, an autoimmune condition that left her with muscle pain, debilitating tiredness and a large collection of prescription bottles.

She worried that she would never be able to keep up with her son. So she gave up the Spam and other meats that were a staple of her Philippines childhood and avoided genetically modified and processed foods.

She switched from a stressful career in technology to her passion as a nutritional counselor and food educator. A trim, youthful 39-year-old who no longer has aches and pains, she dubs herself "VegHacker" on her lively and smart nutritional website the Brazen Kitchen.

"Let me show you how vegetable epicuria can have as powerful pleasurable moan-inducing potential as the meat-centric kind," she writes in her manifesto. "Let's not forget that we are here on earth because Adam could not resist an apple. An apple! Not a Baconator."

Lizarondo pens a weekly online column for Pittsburgh Magazine, and the one on "wild edibles" — aka weeds — led to her sharing her recipe for stinging nettle pesto on NPR's "Weekend Edition."

But despite her affinity for spinach pie with tofu and chickpea fries, she is no holier-than-thou food purist. In counseling her individual and corporate clients, she meets them wherever they are in their food evolution. Like a former smoker teaching a smoking-cessation class, she points to her old artery-clogging behavior as a way to motivate others to change their own food habits.

"If someone who ate meat three times a day and considered Spam a food group can do it, anyone can do it," she says. "I understand cravings."

The mother of two also teaches people how to cook healthy despite the demands of modern life. "You don't need to be Oprah with a personal chef to cook meals for you," says Lizarondo, also a yoga teacher at Yoga Matrika in the city neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.

Lizarondo, who received a master's degree in public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, moved back to Pittsburgh from New York City six years ago with her husband, Bill Shannon, an artist and Pittsburgh native.

They bought a house abutting Wild Red's Gardens, which became the last zoned farm in the city of Pittsburgh in 1875. Her mother-in-law, Randa, owns the farm, which is run as a cooperative. Helping out there has made Lizarondo realize how much hard work it takes to run a farm.

It's also shown her that Pittsburgh can be a great place to grow food, as well as her own food career. "Things have changed so much in the last six years," Lizarondo says. "There is more ethnic food coming in. The local food movement is very active. There are so many more healthier options."

Check out Leah's Pittsburgh.