By: Pam Hersh
The one ingredient Dorothy “Dor” Mullen sprinkles into every recipe she creates is change. Known in Princeton as a chef, gardener, counselor, life coach and preacher of healthy eating, she is above all else a change-agent. Dor describes herself as a dedicated, determined, indebted-to-no-one ambassador of change, a “dog with a bone,” albeit a gluten-free, sugar-free, all-natural bone.
As many in Princeton know, Dor is the founding director of the Suppers Program, which since 2005 has hosted support groups for people who need to change the way they cook and eat, in order to improve their physical and mental health, and overall quality of life.
The first iteration was called “Suppers for Sobriety” and focused on recovering alcoholics. But Suppers has evolved and grown, spreading across Central Jersey and now into other states.
Hundreds of people pile into Dor’s home on Patten Avenue or that of other hosts for one of 40 meetings that take place on a monthly basis. She arrived at this career through her own journey of personal change and has never lost her drive to help others benefit from what she had learned.
When I saw Dor at a recent health fair (produced by Olivia’s Wellness Connection) at the Princeton YMCA, I hid my bag of Cheetos and bottle of Diet Coke and chatted with her about her mission to convert as many people as possible to changing their lives by changing their eating habits.
“People just don’t want to change. They would rather keep taking all sorts of medications and have risky medical procedures instead of embracing the best medicine. I think at a fundamental level, people don’t want to change. I never hear anyone say, ‘Oh gosh, you mean all I have to do is stop eating my favorite foods and my diabetes will go away? Sign me up!’ The physical reality is that changing is really, really hard. Whether it’s food, gambling, shopping or drinking, it’s habits. It’s habits that engage powerful brain chemicals that fundamentally make us not want to change our habits,” said Dor, reiterating the obvious about human nature, but reinforcing the tremendous life benefits that can be reaped by changing what and how you eat.
As a former neighbor of Dor’s and a longtime aficionado of the Suppers Program, I wanted to know if anything has changed in the program since its inception.
“What’s different isn’t Suppers and me, what’s different is the culture,” she said. “Whereas 15 years ago, I couldn’t find 10 people to make a support group of people who were willing to change, now our groups fill up and sometimes I’m turning people away, because my dining room isn’t big enough. (She has nearly 3,000 people on her email list). We have a few dozen co-facilitators running meetings. There is now widespread acceptance even in the medical community that cooking, eating, exercise and living in community offer better solutions than the standard of care…. And furthermore, the medical community is supporting this. We’re now seeing culinary medicine and physician chef programs.”
She described her change epiphany occurring as she became immersed in “the perfect storm” of cultural addictions. “In the spring/summer of 2005, I identified – and determined to do something about – both the problem of processed food and devices (cell phone, etc.) having an addicting effect on the brain… All around me were signs of a fundamental cultural shift that sparked dread in me. Children didn’t want to learn from parents or eat the food made at home. Screens were becoming more interesting than real life. Every problem I cared about was looking like an addiction to me.”
In a July 29, 2005, letter to The Princeton Packet, Dor – at the time a single mom of teenagers – described how she launched the first strike in her war on addictive behavior. “In May, I pulled the plug on the TV, computer and hand-held videos, and declared a screen-less summer….” She also enrolled her daughter and her daughter’s friends in “Camp Mom” that featured prepared-from-scratch meals in her Luddite, low-tech kitchen and then actually sitting down at a table and having a conversation while enjoying the meal.
The 14 years since 2005 have “confirmed my worst fears, drilled me deeper into my convictions and fueled my drive to continue. Since that summer in 2005 when I created Camp Mom, the research has moved from the fringe to the headlines. The health crises we are dealing with are fundamentally grounded in the neural pathways of addiction. Whether we’re talking about screens, alcohol or type-2 diabetes, the solutions require grinding new behavioral grooves in brains that would rather stay the same. My solution is to offer communities based on mutual desires to lead a healthier life.”
Dor’s life prior to 2005 had all the ingredients for a disaster until she – thanks to the same determined personality that created Camp Mom – wrote her own recipe for change.
“Ever since I was little, I have craved things: licorice, chocolate, pasta, oatmeal, peanut butter, cigarettes, cheese, coffee, alcohol, and so on and so forth. I was always looking for something that would change how I felt. I also had a lot of health problems: ear infections, drippy allergies, bellyaches and agitation, and ultimately hormonal complaints. I was said to be ‘high-strung’.…
“As a young adult, my story continued with anxiety, depression, cigarettes, alcohol, a psychiatric hospitalization, more allergies, insomnia, dependence on benzodiazepines and disenchantment with the medical system. I was not easy to live with, and there were serious consequences in my relationships, especially my marriage…. Even the most brilliant practitioners could not make sense of my experience, but the one who came closest was Bob Atkins, the diet doctor … who believed that blood sugar was at the root of all evils. As soon as I eliminated refined carbohydrates from my diet, I got relief from the near suicidal depression.”
The honesty and vitality of the Suppers story is fueled by the fact Dor does this work strictly as a volunteer. Because she takes no salary, her conclusions and observations of what works and what does not work are free from influence from any element of the corporate, medical, pharmaceutical and governmental community. She takes in boarders in her house in order to help her survive as she goes forward working full-time on her mission of change.
In addition to Suppers’ core work of helping individuals, the program now is engaged in “pilot studies and focus groups on the connection between blood sugar and brain health/dementia. The main research tool is systematically observing people and collecting data that is tied to nutrition. When she went back to school to receive her master’s degree in counseling from The College of New Jersey, Dor knew she never would be a traditional counselor, but rather one who injected nutrition into the analysis of one’s mental state.
Dor, who just became a grandmother, vows to help create a sugar-free, device-free environment for this grandchild and any others who come into the family. Her hope is all children, related to her or not, experience their own journeys of change that are characterized by less addition and more joy.