Growing up on a small farm in Trinidad, Joycelyn M. Peterson decided at a young age she wanted to be a vegetarian, because she got so upset when she had to eat farm animals. But her mother wouldn't let her choose that path, she said, telling her that if she didn't eat animal products, she'd die.
Peterson believed her -- until she met a Seventh-day Adventist at her school, a young girl who taught her about the "original diet." It is described in the book of Genesis as a meat-free diet of fruits, nuts, grains, seeds and vegetables.
Many Seventh-day Adventists worldwide abide by this diet, Peterson said.
She believes that humans began to eat meat only after the fall of Eden and blames it for shortening mankind's life span.
The night she heard about the "original diet," Peterson, who was Catholic, went home and told her mother that when she grew up, she would not only become a vegetarian, she would also publish a cookbook and become a Seventh-day Adventist.
Peterson kept her word -- and more. A registered dietitian with a master's degree in public health and nutrition, Peterson runs Columbia's only vegan culinary school, the Vegetarian Institute of Nutrition & Culinary Arts. (Vegans are vegetarians who do not eat animal products, eschewing milk, eggs and usually honey.) Within the institute, she runs a vegan restaurant that is open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, Thursday nights for dinner and the first Sunday of every month for brunch.
Three years ago, Peterson also founded Columbia's only Seventh-day Adventist church, Columbia Community Center, which meets in Hawthorn Center in Hickory Ridge and has about 40 members.
Although the church and school are not related, they work closely together. The institute offers food and cooking classes based on the "original diet." Through December, the institute is offering a religious seminar called "Health and the Bible Series for the Next Millennium."
"My purpose is really to educate the public on vegetarianism," Peterson said.
Peterson is a walking billboard for the beneficial effects of a vegan diet. At 50, she does not have so much as a wrinkle on her face. And she maintains a busy schedule that might tire a person half her age.
She teaches cooking classes -- for amateur cooks as well as for chefs who want to expand their healthful repertoire -- runs the institute, cooks, gives lectures at churches throughout the community and is working on opening a cooking institute in Yorba Linda, Calif. She plans to pursue a doctorate in international nutrition and travel around the world engaging in "health evangelism."
"We believe that the Bible says that you should eat fruits and grains and vegetables," she said. "We believe the body is the temple that God dwells in."
She believes that she could teach better nutrition and decrease the infant mortality rate in many developing countries.
None of the food offered at the institute has dairy or eggs.
On a typical day, the buffet might have an organic salad, heavy on lettuce and light on other vegetables, with salad dressing on the side. The menu offers soup, meatless hot dogs or burgers, rice and baked beans.
The entree might be lasagna made with soy, or black bean enchiladas.
On lasagna days, the institute serves homemade, high-fiber, whole wheat bread lightly drizzled with olive oil and herbs -- a far cry from the drenched-in-butter, high-in-fat, low-in-fiber French bread served at chain restaurants.
Because it is in a Columbia strip mall, the restaurant doesn't have an intimate atmosphere. The buffet is a little pricey for lunch -- almost $9 -- but it is also all-you-can-eat.
Diners must get their silverware from the buffet table and pour their water.
The restaurant has an informal feel to it -- almost too informal, sometimes. It was closed on a recent Tuesday when the restaurant's sign and phone message said it was open.
That problem aside, the healthy and tasty food should help Peterson realize her goal of teaching people how much better they can feel if they eat well.
"You can have all the money in the world, and if you don't have your health, you don't have anything," she said.
Joy of Living
Where: 7185 Gateway Drive, Columbia; 410-872-0180.
Hours: 11: 30 a.m. to 2: 30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays; first Sunday of the month, 11: 30 a.m. to 2: 30 p.m.
Prices: Buffet lunch, $8.95. Thursday dinners, by reservation only, $7.95. Sunday brunch, $12.95. Individual entrees, $4.75-$5.95; soups, $3; desserts, $2.50.
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express.