From Woodstock to Wellness
by John Belleme in Macrobiotics Today, July 2003
If Sandy looks familiar, it may be because he has appeared many times in south Florida newspapers, natural foods magazines, and even on national television. If you are a Florida Marlin fan you may have seen him on TV throwing out the first ceremonial pitch during the last game of the 2002 season. However, if you are a member of the hip generation, you may remember Sandy in his starring role as one of the flower children who were interviewed, naked, in the film classic Woodstock. Sandy’s transformation from a junk food hippie to the motivating force behind macrobiotics in Florida and one of this country’s most influential advocates for healthy eating has been a spiritual quest of epic proportions.
A law school dropout in the late 1960s, Sandy shunned his middle class Jewish roots for a bohemian Manhattan lifestyle. Disillusioned with his lack of purpose in life, in 1970, Sandy had a profound, life altering, “born again” experience. He happened to take a macrobiotic cooking class. “Immediately I had a purpose,” says Sandy, “everything I was ever interested in came together for me. Macrobiotics included everything. My interest in mind-altering substances vanished. I have never looked back.”
Later that year, at a macrobiotic summer camp in upstate New York, Sandy met a man that would set the direction of his life for the next thirty years. It was macrobiotic world leader Michio Kushi, dressed in shorts, knee socks, dress shoes and white shirt. Michio and Sandy really hit it off and became instant friends. The balancing principles of the macrobiotic way of life seemed to be a perfect antidote to Sandy’s lack of direction, and soon he was focused not only on changing his life but also on helping Michio change our nation’s attitudes towards food and health.
Fired up from summer camp and meeting Michio, Sandy and a few of his fledgling macrobiotic friends went to tropical Jamaica for a macro getaway. They took 44 pounds of Hatcho miso, 50 pounds of brown rice, and 66 pounds of azuki beans. That’s right, hold the vegies, these guys were hardcore.
After the Jamaica experience Sandy moved to Coconut Grove, Florida and become the first macrobiotic cooking teacher in that part of the country. (By this time he had widened out his diet to include a few root vegetables.) With a $4,000 loan from his father, Sandy opened a natural food store, called Oak Feed, in the law office of a friend. Before long he moved to a larger location, and by the 1990’s, Oak Feed was doing two million dollars in annual sales and occupied one of the swankiest addresses in Florida. What’s more, as Coconut Grove grew and became a Mecca for everything chic, the Oak Feed store and Oak Feed restaurant became the place to rub elbows with the elite of film and sport. However, Sandy’s good financial fortune and growing notoriety did not deter him from his bigger dream. With resources from his business Sandy helped to establish the Macrobiotic Centers of Florida, with locations in Miami, Tallahassee, Sarasota, Orlando, Palm Beach, and Tampa. Soon he began sponsoring conferences featuring macrobiotic leaders Michio Kushi and Herman Aihara. As interest in macrobiotics, Oriental medicine, health and natural food grew, Sandy’s workshops and conferences expanded to include nationally known teachers and speakers who attracted thousands of attendees in Florida, California, and Colorado. Many of Sandy’s conferences are sponsored by his non-profit educational foundation, Holistic Holiday at Sea, and have featured respected authorities such as Benjamin Spock, M.D., Bernie Seigel, M.D., Deepak Chopra, M.D., Dean Ornish, M.D., and Keith Block, M.D. Other notable featured speakers have been John Robbins, Raffi, Cesar Chavez, Harvey and Marilyn Diamond, and Hollywood celebrities such as natural foods enthusiast and bionic women Lindsey Wagner, five time Emmy Award winner Ed Asner, Emmy Award winner Ted Danson, and Academy Award Winner Mary Steenburgen.
On several occasions Holistic Holiday at Sea has sponsored large, open-air health festivals in Coconut Grove, Florida. These events are supported by the local media and attended by up to 30,000 people. These festivals have been instrumental in introducing tens of thousands of people to the benefits of a healthier lifestyle. Proceeds from many of these events were used to educate school children about the benefits of good nutrition.
John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America, is one celebrity who has attended several of Sandy’s conferences. “Sandy is one of the brightest minds in the natural healing movement,” says Robbins about his friend. Michio counts Sandy as one of his “best friends” and credits him for helping to establish macrobiotics in the United States. “Sandy has guided many people toward a healthier lifestyle and to make their lives happier and more enjoyable. His seminars have been a major influence in creating public awareness about the importance of diet in the prevention of disease,” said Michio in a recent interview. Senior macrobiotic teacher and author Lino Stanchich, who has been helping Sandy with macrobiotic events for almost thirty years, comments, “Sandy is a pioneer in the natural foods and macrobiotic movement and has helped bring health and balance to countless people worldwide. He is a visionary who makes the impossible possible and does it with chutzpa and humor.” Author of Man In the Kitchen, Warren Wepman, says of his old friend, “In his unassuming, yet assertive manner, mostly in the background, Sandy Pukel is the linchpin of macrobiotics in Florida.” In Sandy’s own words, “My life is an expression of what I think is important. ‘You are what you eat’ is really true. Food creates the body and has a great influence on our mind and spiritual life. My dream is a peaceful, ecologically sane world, which I feel must begin with balanced eating.” True to his ideals, Sandy refuses to sell products that have processed sugars and preservatives.
Sandy is a macrobiotic evangelist, and many of his business associates have advised him to spend less time promoting macrobiotics and more time worrying about his business and finances. In fact, when Erewhon, the natural foods company owned by Michio and Aveline Kushi, got into financial trouble many years ago, Sandy got a second mortgage on his house to help save the firm, which finally went bankrupt.
I am one of Sandy’s early macrobiotic recruits and was drawn into the powerful vortex of his life over twenty-five years ago. Depressed about my work and life, I happened into the Oak Feed store and asked Sandy a simple question about food. I do not remember the question, but his answer changed my life. The next thing I knew I was living in a macrobiotic studyhouse in Boston, where I met my wife Jan. Just a few years later Jan and I found ourselves sitting on the floor in a 300-year-old house in rural Japan getting miso making lessons in Japanese from a miso master. So it is for thousands of people who have been directly or indirectly changed by the power of Sandy’s karmic destiny.
Although Sandy is widely known in North America as the owner of the landmark Oak Feed store and for his far-reaching efforts to promote food quality and macrobiotics through education, he is also a certified nutritionist and has a macrobiotic consulting practice in Florida. Sandy has also been involved in several important macrobiotic businesses. He was the motivating force behind the American Miso Company in North Carolina. With the help of Michio, Sandy was also one of the first to import Japanese foods from Mitoku Company in Japan. This grew into an import company called Granum East, which was eventually sold to Great Eastern Sun in Asheville, North Carolina.
Another one of Sandy’s important contributions is the Ignoramus Club, which included Michio and other senior macrobiotic teachers. The idea was for macrobiotic teachers to have a place to present new ideas about the direction and future of macrobiotics in a setting where everyone was equal. Although the Ignoramus Club has not met recently, the concept seemed to work, and several innovations in teaching macrobiotics were introduced.
Sandy’s latest adventure to promote macrobiotics and health is his “Holistic Holiday at Sea - A Voyage to Wellness,” a body pampering, relaxing vacation aboard one of the world’s most luxurious ocean liners. The cruise will last seven days, and the ship will stops at exotic ports of call such as Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel, Mexico. Guests will attend lectures and workshops by leading authorities in macrobiotics, alternative medicine, yoga, meditation, feng shui, and shiatsu, while dining on specially prepared macrobiotic foods, swimming and snorkeling in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, and lounging in saunas and Turkish baths. Macrobiotic seminars at sea has been Sandy’s dream for many years. This is the “ultimate learning vacation,” says Sandy, who has always stressed the importance of having fun in all aspects of life.
Although Sandy’s motto is “everything changes,” in many ways he is still the casual, friendly guy he was back in his hippie days. His approach to life is still very anti-establishment, and most days he can be seen riding around the Grove in his ’73 orange beetle convertible wearing Bermuda shorts, Birkenstock sandals, and a bright flowered shirt. Like his store, Sandy is a Coconut Grove icon.
If, like me, you met Sandy during a life crisis and have a Catholic upbringing, it is easy to think of Sandy as the Saint Francis of macrobiotics. Like his counterpart from Assisi, Sandy creates hope were there is despair, brings the spirit of forgiveness where there is discord, and like the saint of old, Sandy would rather understand than be understood.