Chews Life Now: Live Free and Dine – healthy in all flavors

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A labor of love from a passionate crew. Left, Carla Guffanti, manager; center, Karen Calabro, chef/owner; right, Inger Walega, chef. Photo/Carolyn Choate

CHEWS LIFE NOW 1Okay, so it hasn’t been the snowiest winter in memory.  Still, cabin fever is a legit disease of the mind. Without summer gardens to tend, balmy front porches for spontaneous neighbor gab fests, or July kayak paddles in the Nashua River, it forced this vegan to look for reinforcements. Like-minded devotees in a secular world.  

Enter Vegan New Hampshire on Facebook, the social media group started in 2014 with close to 5K members – including moi as of January 19.  

Some will call it luck or coincidence but the idealist in me stands convinced it was fate. Here’s the first post I saw: 

Hi everyone! We’re Live Free & Dine Market & Culinary School, a NEW gourmet market in Nashua, NH offering take-out-only pre-made meals, sides, desserts, and more, made with locally sourced ingredients from small New Hampshire farms.  Our mission is to make it easier for New Hampshire families to put wholesome, scratch-made meals on the table – including families with one or more folks following a vegan diet.

Avoiding meat & dairy shouldn’t mean you have to avoid flavor too.  Our meals are crafted with great flavor the whole family will love, and all you need to do is heat them up.

We currently have over 25 vegan dishes ready for pick-up in the fridge right now.  Order online at www.livefreedine to reserve your favorites or just come by the market in Greystone Plaza, Nashua.  Open Wednesday to Friday 12 AM – 7 PM; Saturday & Sunday 10 AM – 5 PM. 

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Live Free & Dine. Something for  every taste, any meal. Photo/Carolyn Choate

I was quick to respond:  Can’t wait to meet you personally! (Heart emoji.) 

I didn’t wait long. Live Free & Dine Market & Culinary School exceeded all expectations. 

Founder/owner Karen Calabro is a Renaissance woman in every sense of the word.  (Lorenzo Medici would be inspired.)  Wife, mother, a luminary career in both the culinary and medical arts, and current New Hampshire State Representative serving District 45 of Hollis, Calabro’s foray into food began in California in the 1980s while in a pre-med program at De Anza College.  

Turned out gastronomy trumped biology and she was damn good. So good that apprenticeships at esteemed foodie haunts would eventually lead to membership at the American Culinary Federation and a position at the Sheraton Grande in San Diego as executive banquet sous chef.  One of the highest-grossing banquet facilities in the country at the time at over $7.2M a year, Calabro worked long hours but always had a heart for community service and activism.  She experienced the Rodney King riots firsthand. 

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Home-cooked meals + homey interior = unique healthy, takeout experience. Photo/Carolyn Choate

“That was an extremely traumatic experience for so many of us,” said Calabro. “From it I learned so much about inherent bias.”

But an offer in 1997 from Boston’s Omni Parker Hotel would not only change her life but its trajectory. With her parents living in Acton, Massachusetts, the mother of one thought it an easy decision. Working as Omni Parker’s banquet chef would only last one year before accepting a position of which she was much more fond at Epicurean Feast. Meanwhile, she made her way to the New Hampshire town of Hollis to put down some roots and bring up her growing family.  

Speaking of roots, Calabro’s innate sense of well-being and food have always been deeply rooted in her psyche.  And it’s front and center at Live Free & Dine.

“Some of our recipes are hundreds of years old and as close to the land as possible,” says Calabro. “Small farms need a voice. When I came east, I couldn’t believe how much better produce is here than the West Coast.  Maybe it’s the seasonal changes, the fluctuation in temperature, but vegetables, especially root crops just taste better.” 

Calabro doesn’t mince words when critical of the current restaurant distribution system that penalizes restaurant clients for not meeting minimum produce sales requirements, making it difficult if not impossible to source local organic produce from area farms. 

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Vegan Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms Florentine with Tomato Gravy. A top-selling favorite. Photo/Carolyn Choate

The menu at Live Free & Dine isn’t exclusively vegan.  You’ll find humanely treated, locally grown meat and seafood from Blood Farm, Hilltop Farm, and Local Hull.

“You know, as someone serving in the New House of Representatives right now and as a business owner who likes to think those of us in office can vouch for business owners including the economic interest of our farmers, I’m going to give it my all,” declared the first term state representative.  

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Peanut Lime Noodle Salad. Lunch or dinner? (I love it for breakfast. Fuels me all day!) Photo/Carolyn Choate

Calabro’s has been a circuitous path to today.  

She eventually left the food industry to satiate that still hungering passion for medicine, believing herself to be a caregiver at heart contributing to humanity’s wellbeing.  Calabro became a physician assistant after graduating from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in 2015.

“My return to medicine was an opportunity not only for me to be a better person,” said Calabro, “but to show others how to do it taking baby steps.  I lost 152 pounds.  I overcame my nicotine addiction.  I put into practice what I already knew deeply.  That food decisions affect long term health outcomes.” 

While doing rotations in Maine – often with much younger colleagues – Calabro would hold cook-alongs and distribute a week’s worth of food to her appreciative cohorts. 

“That time proved to be another important chapter in my food story, one that really showed me how I could serve my community through the healing qualities of diet,” said Calabro.

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Live Free & Dine has lots of gluten-free and vegan baked goods like cornbread, cookies, apple maple crisp – and more. Treats without guilt. Photo/Carolyn Choate

Over the next 20 years, Calabro worked in various health-related roles, but the COVID-19 pandemic would create a new health crisis paradigm, one that would surpass anything anyone had ever seen before including consumer demographic trends.  Many with health issues and risks of their own. 

She credits her husband, Nicolai, for the “ah-ha” moment.

“I had made Nick a nice, healthy meal, with fresh local produce and herbs” Calabro recalled, “following some downtime at our camp in the North Country after Covid was finally settling down, and he says, “imagine making this meal for the community,’ and I thought, ‘yes! Imagine that? Let me take care of you, New Hampshire.”

You won’t find a more passionate or knowledgeable advocate than Karen Calabro.  From autoimmune disease to gluten sensitivity, her understanding of biochemistry is the stuff of Elizabeth Zott in Apple’s blockbuster series, Lessons in Chemistry.  

“If you’re feeding a family of four and two are non-gluten, one is no tree nuts, and the other anything goes?  Live Free & Dine has got you covered,” said Calabro. “We make it easy and always healthy for the whole family. You want to sign up for adult cooking classes on select Friday evenings or your kids on Saturdays? Live Free & Dine has got you covered. We cater, too, so you can relax and have fun at your own event knowing delicious, healthy food prepared from scratch will be served to your guests.”

She says it with such conviction and a smile that lights up the room.  

BTW: Live Free & Dine might be in an average strip mall, but there’s nothing remotely average about their décor. It feels like a country store on a two-lane road. From the antique hutch full of New Hampshire-made products to the vintage bric-a-brac shelves stacked with homemade fare made onsite including healthy desserts.  (That is not an oxymoron at this take-out address.) Yes, one wall features endless refrigerated shelves with too many to-go entrees to name but go online or stop in because the staff is as friendly as the food.

As for Vegan New Hampshire on Facebook, you done good.  Real good.    


Live Free & Dine Market & Culinary School

Greystone Plaza

650 Amherst Street, Nashua 

603-864-0417 www.livefreedine.com


 

 

 

 

About this Author

Carolyn R. Choate

Carolyn overcame stage 3 breast cancer in 2003 because she thought she knew a lot about health and food. Turns out she didn’t know beans about health food. But all that changed on March 2, 2022 - the day after she was diagnosed with advanced Hurthle Cell thyroid cancer - when she joined the epigenetic diet revolution. Using phytochemicals found in nature’s astonishing bounty of plants, she reclaimed her life and earned her certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Campbell Colin Center for Nutritional Studies through eCornell to help herself and others suffering from chronic disease. Carolyn is passionate about sharing all the life-affirming reasons to be vegan.