As spas go, Lyndonville's Stepping Stone offers many of the usual services: massages, wraps, scrubs, polishes. Perched on a 570-acre parcel atop Darling Hill, the 2-year-old family business doubles as an inn - Jacuzzi tubs and saunas are available to all guests, and there's space for yoga or workouts with the on-site personal trainer.
In the café, things get a bit unusual. Rather than steamed veggies, broiled fish and other spa standards, the menu features hearty fare. The juicy beef "farm burger" is topped with melted chewddar cheese and caramelized onions and mushrooms. Tomato bisque is accompanied by "grown-up" grilled cheese. And a dollop of whipped cream embellishes the flourless chocolate cake. It's the sort of food modern nutritionists warn us not to eat. So what's it doing in a wellness regime?
Stepping Stone doesn't follow the USDA's food pyramid guidelines. Instead, the center follows the "traditional" food philosophies advocated by the Weston Price Foundation and its spokeswoman-president Sally Fallon. In her book, Nourishing Traditions, Fallon blames the industrialized American diet for many modern diseases, and calls for a return to local whole foods, grown organically. She bucks mainstream nutrition advice, and stresses the health benefits of red meat and full-fat dairy products from grass-fed animals. She also encourages consuming lacto-fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, as digestive aids, and warns against vegetable oils such as canola, which are high in Omega-6 fatty acids and low in Omega-3s. Refined flour and sugar are twin evils. And, of course, hydrogenated oils are off the menu.
The spa's founder, Richard Downing, is sold on Fallon fare because he followed her eating advice as part of his own self-designed cure for colon cancer. When he was first diagnosed with the disease, he went for surgery and chemotherapy. The cancer recurred. Second time around, Downing refused allopathic treatment for a "mind-body" approach that involved massage, hydrotherapy and a dramatic diet change. A devout Catholic, he also attended religious healing services. At his next check-up, the cancer was gone, along with his scars from a previous operation.
Downing felt compelled to share with others what he'd learned from his unique experience. He founded Stepping Stone Wellness Center in April 2005 with the intention of helping other people avoid illness - not just cancer, but heart disease and even the common cold.
The Stepping Stone Café serves up Fallon's ideology. The signature free-range chicken salad - flavored with carrots, ginger and apples - is topped with lettuce and served on nutty sprouted wheat bread with soup or salad on the side. Like all of the café's entrées, it comes with a little dish of fermented veggies. The cheddar on the burger is made from raw milk, and the continental breakfast includes whole-milk yogurt. Rounding out the meal, the decadent chocolate cake is made with raw, iron-rich Rapadura sugar rather than the refined white stuff.
Even in winter, mesclun greens for the garden salads are grown in an on-site greenhouse, along with cherry, plum and slicing tomatoes. In the summer, garden and greenhouse manager Ralph Caldwell grows about 70 percent of the veggies the center serves, including asparagus from a patch that can be seen through the café's windows. Sage, oregano, rosemary and thyme come from a sizable herb garden. The Downing property bears fruit, too. Land that was hayfield just 20 years ago now yields red and black currants, raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, strawberries and hazelnuts. Pears and plums will be coming when the trees mature.
Another way the Downings adhere to Fallon's philosophies is by offering only grass-fed meat, which is higher in vitamins, minerals and heart-healthy CLA - conjugated linoleic acid - than grain-fed beef. They take it to the next level by raising their own cattle. Downing's son Stephen cares for the 120 or so Belted Galloways. The animals, affectionately called "belties," are mostly black with a white "belt" around the midsection. The breed is thought to have originated in the 16th century.
Cattle strains such as American Herefords and Beefmaster, which have been "bred to the feedlot" - selected for traits that work well on factory farms - can't easily make the transition to a grass-only diet, according to another one of Downing's sons, Paul, who manages the center's grounds. "Heirloom" animals make for both healthier meat and easier farming, he stresses. "Belties" comfortably graze on pasture and hay, but can also digest twigs and tannin-rich leaves, which are natural de-wormers. "We never have to de-worm our cows," Paul says. Although the cattle take two and a half years to reach "market weight" - much longer than factory-farmed cows, which are typically slaughtered at 20 months - the resulting meat is flavorful and well-marbled.
The homegrown animals provide meat for the hamburgers and many of the café's daily specials, such as spicy enchiladas. Downing's granddaughter Rachel runs the kitchen, using bones to make soup stock rich in glucosamine and chondroitin - both important for healthy joints. The beef is also featured down the road at the Wildflower Inn, which the family also owns, and is available for sale at local food stores and co-ops under their Meadow View Farms label; Paul hopes to expand to the Burlington market.
At Stepping Stone, the food doesn't stop at the café door. Guests who select inn and spa packages are treated to appetizers when they arrive, and find healthy treats stashed in their rooms. Books scattered throughout the inn focus on topics such detoxing fasts and healthy eating. Even some of the spa services draw on the healing properties of food: Mud wraps come with "green tea" and "seaweed" options, and salt scrubs are scented with citrus, vanilla or herbs. Hot cocoa, peppermint and coffee feature in various therapies, too.
But food, pampering and relaxation are only part of the "body-mind-spirit" triumvirate that Richard Downing believes helped him get well, and that drives the Stepping Stone program. Regular exercise is also stressed. Personal trainer Jennifer Kirchoff designs regimens to help clients at different fitness levels get healthier - and maybe work off some of the calories from that chocolate cake.
Beginning later this month, Stepping Stone will begin offering intensive, multi-day wellness programs to guests and interested locals. The first workshop, entitled "Family Wellness: Optimizing Health Through Good Nutrition," will run January 26 through 28. Helmed by Dr. David Katz, a health columnist for O magazine and a medical contributor to ABC news, the session will include meals, cooking lessons, talks on fitness and nutrition, and time to relax in the spa or explore the grounds.
The Downings are in the process of erecting a chapel to be used for meditation and prayer. With a nod to the family's Catholic convictions, the plan is to have the building consecrated so that masses and weddings can be performed there. Non-Catholic visitors are encouraged to meditate, walk in the woods or visit local places of worship that mesh with their faiths. Whatever works . . . up an appetite.