Living Light or Bust

By Shashi Tusken

One of my favorite things about working at The Shift Network is being appreciated for my whole self, not just for my abilities and strengths as they show up in my job.

In addition to being a Telesummit Coordinator, I also bake the birthday cakes and treats for our company’s local monthly birthday celebration.

Food has always been a theme in my life. I’ve been cooking real food like soups and stews — not just chocolate-chip cookies — since I was nine years old, inspired by my aunt Florence and my Italian grandma. As a teen, I dreamed of going to the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York, about 200 miles from where I grew up in New Jersey. I never got there.

Instead, my career path turned out to be more meandering than I would have thought possible. When I was in my early thirties living in Chicago, I met a chef who taught me all about her catering operation. I apprenticed with her while I was going to massage school; she was generous enough to help me set up my own catering business and even gave me a few clients.

A year later, I officially changed careers from systems analyst to massage therapist. I liked the diversity of doing both catering and massage therapy. I had planned to do massage full time, but because I like food so much I couldn’t let go of the catering. (And I still haven’t. To this day, I make a vegan, grain-free, gluten-free, all-organic bread and bread mix, and sell it to friends, family and anyone else who wants it.)

A year after graduating from massage school, I was working at a place in Chicago called Minute Massage. The owner was deeply into natural foods and healing, and started carrying books for sale. One of the first books she offered was Be Your Own Doctor by Ann Wigmore. I bought that book and it changed my life.

Actually, just before I started reading that book, a friend was telling me about someone she knew who decided that they were only going to eat vegan raw food. I remember saying, “What? I could never do that! I’m Italian, I make pizza!”

Then I read that book in one night.

The next day I decided to try eating only vegan raw food for a week; at that time, all I knew to eat was whole fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds, and some lightly seasoned salads. At the end of the week I felt as energized as I was when I was sixteen years old. I was hooked! (That very weekend, another friend threw a birthday party with Chicago-style pizza and beer. I went, I ate... and I felt like HELL, and that’s actually what hooked me on vegan raw food. I said, “Never again!” to having my body feel that badly. It was a “bad” that I wouldn’t even have identified if it wasn’t for the stark contrast of having just eaten all raw vegan for a week. What timing!)

As I was building my massage practice, I became completely immersed in cleansing and detoxing my body. I began fasting and learning more about the quality of water and the importance of eating organic, and a whole new world of culinary fun (soaking, sprouting, dehydrating) opened up to me.

I was also catering and incorporating as much vegan raw food as possible into the food I was preparing for others. At some point I decided to cater only vegan raw food; I also knew that it was time to leave Chicago and head west. In a few months I found myself in San Diego, deeply committed to the vegan raw food community.

My first real claim to fame was creating the very first flax crackers that the online store Nature’s First Law ever sold. When they told me that someone in Siberia had purchased my flax crackers I nearly fainted.

I started giving raw food preparation classes in my living room. I would get about 20 students for most of my events, which felt like a lot in a raw food-saturated area. I also realized that I needed to take a class or a few classes and earn some type of certification. My favorite raw food chef of all time — who most inspired me to follow this direction — is Elaina Love. I went to many of her classes and was even invited once to prepare part of a raw Thanksgiving dinner alongside her, which I enthusiastically accepted. It was a great event.

I heard that Elaina Love taught with Living Light Culinary Institute, and that they had classes in a place called Harbin Hot Springs in northern California. I wasn’t making very much money since I was still getting settled in San Diego, so I wrote an email asking for donations with the subject line, “Living Light or Bust,” and sent it to the 300 people on my “Friends and Family” email list. This was in 2003, before we were all so savvy about crowdfunding. Still, I crowdfunded myself, raising the $3,000+ that it would take to make the trip. (Special thanks to a special someone who contributed $1,000.)

Beginning in 1997, I ate primarily vegan raw food for about 15 years. The best cleanse I did during this time was a 15-day(!) water fast, and the most fun I had eating was going to a little organic salad bar in Escondido run by a timeless woman of inestimable age who was definitely thriving on a raw vegan diet.

However, by year 16 of eating primarily a raw food diet, I had just moved to Harbin Hot Springs where others were cooking all kinds of food. Surprisingly, I found myself adding back some cooked foods to my diet. I was just too cold during the northern California winters to subsist solely on raw food! I was also missing some traditional favorites, like pizza. The many versions of raw pizza I had created were wonderful but, well, pizza is irreplaceable! I also began experimenting with gluten-free cooked options.

I still believe that eating mostly raw is the best dietary option but I just really love a baked sweet potato every so often. To me, a sweet potato is soul food — and my soul needs to eat too, not just my body!

I also found myself experiencing intense cravings for salmon and some meat. In fact, I was dreaming of eating salmon every few nights. I followed my intuition, went to a sushi restaurant, ordered sashimi and immediately felt better. The dreams of salmon never returned. I guess it was just my body’s time to feed itself differently.

Shashi and her husband Ray celebrated her birthday in March with her homemade, gluten-free, grain-free, all-organic strawberry shortcake. Click here for Shashi’s original recipe, which is posted on her blog.

Now, in 2017, I’ve embraced a diet of my own making that incorporates what I love about the raw food, paleo, Bulletproof, ketogenic, and my own lifestyle diets. Over the past 20 years, I’ve learned that, while we are all anatomically similar, we are all completely different in the ways our bodies respond to food. I’ve learned how to listen to my body, discern my cravings from my desires, and, for the most part, balance the two.

I’ve also learned that I love making other people happy by giving them healthy food, so it’s always my pleasure to make delicious, organic, gluten-free, grain-free, low-sugar (sometimes no-sugar) fun, yummy birthday treats for my colleagues and coworkers.

To share my passion with others, I’m in the process of creating a cookbook of all of my favorites, new and old. Stay tuned!

Shashi is one of the Telesummit Coordinators at The Shift Network. She loves being a part of the difference that The Shift Network makes in the world. Shashi lives in Middletown, California. When she's not working for The Shift Network, she's either in the kitchen baking, doing yoga with her husband Ray, gardening, volunteering at the Middletown Art Center, or working on her cookbook! Click here to visit Shashi’s website. You can reach Shashi at

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This article appears in: 2017 Catalyst, Issue 10: Healing Grief