Working in Japan was a pain in the neck, literally. From my shoulder blades to the base of my brain, I had been in persistent agony for several months by the time I got desperate enough to call an acupuncturist. My neck had petrified into one frozen, stony mess. I was a stranger in a strange land on assignment in Tokyo back in 2007 and irrationally worried that if I didn’t get help, I might never be able to turn my head freely again. Not that I necessarily wanted to, because everywhere I looked, all I saw loomed cold, lonesome and aloof.
I missed my old restaurant job. I missed understanding snippets of conversation on the train. I even missed the F train – you know it’s bad when you ride the world’s cleanest, most efficient metro system and you long for the Jamaica-to-Coney Island local. More than anything, though, I missed the flexibility that carried me through past adventures around the globe. Where did it go? What had happened to me? I was tight in the grip of physical and mental paralysis. I finally called an English-speaking doctor and booked an appointment. Must. Have. Relief. Now.
Have I mention my trypanophobia? Come near me with a needle and I have a meltdown. I have actually skipped college matriculation just to avoid the required MMR inoculation and would almost rather get my teeth drilled sans Novocaine. I’ll pretty much do anything to avoid the dreaded syringe. Here I am then, lying on an acupuncturist’s table in a foreign country with a man in a white lab coat sticking needles in my neck and down my spine, trying to convince me there’s really nothing to be afraid of. That’s how bad my neck felt. Pain is relative, I tell myself, but I surrender as best I can to 2,200 years of Eastern orthodoxy and hope I don’t hyperventilate or start weeping uncontrollably, although that’s probably just what I need to do – breathing and crying can be great relief in times of debilitation, but I’m unable to unclench my body or my mind.
“OK, now just lie here while your body adjusts,” the doctor says, as his hands move skillfully down the back of me in a calm, healing manner. His touch is soothing. “Your feet are really cold,” he remarks, as he inserts a few more needles along my legs.
“They’ve been cold lately,” I reply.
“Do you eat a lot of salad?” he asks.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I answer, slightly irritated that he’s focused on the temperature of my feet when clearly it’s my neck that needs his full attention. I’m suffering; who cares about my feet? Make my neck feel better!
“You should cook your vegetables,” he advises. “Don’t eat them raw. You need warmth in your food, then your feet won’t be so cold.”
I resisted him; all I could think was that I liked salad. It’s healthy, quick and easy to prepare and besides, cooking had really not been my forte anyway. I preferred going out to eat and ordering a garde manger-composed leafy pile of raw vegetables with some fancy vinaigrette. Or did I? Was I just on a road that was a little too well-traveled for a contrarian like me? Perhaps it was time for things in my life to change. Hey, even my doctor was telling me I had cold feet.
The simple and obvious have often eluded me. Could it be as easy as that? Warm begets warm. I soon came to consider his gentle demeanor and the possible wisdom in his words. For the rest of my time in Tokyo, I sautéed up lots of greens and experimented with making vegetable miso soups. I stopped ordering salads when I ate out, even if they sounded nutritious and gourmet. I considered the radical notion of change and questioned the prudence of stamina. As I began to relax into cooking, the chill in my feet lessened and the pleasures of the kitchen dawned. Gradually I gained movement in my neck and loosened up other restricted places in my life.
I carried this lesson home with me and now, four years later, I love cooking. I’ve found warmth in the kitchen and in my life. I’m roasting sheetpans of beets, sweet potatoes, and turnips. I’m simmering cabbage and chard in soups and sauteing kale and garlic with local Maine shrimp and scallops. As my upper body has slowly recovered from tension and tightness, I have also started to recover from twenty-five years in the restaurant business and its accompanying foodie mentality, which from a certain stance can both be seen as rigid and competitive. The constant pursuit of the highest rating, the latest dish, the most perfect execution can sap the playful and judicious, leaving us in less than good health.
I don’t reject it all, however. I do embrace eating seasonal and local, I support healthy school lunches and food security campaigns. I enjoy the widespread availability of organic produce and all the attention and respect serving and cooking professionally get these days. The world is a healthier place as the general public becomes more fluent on farm-to-table restaurants, the impact of governmental subsidies for corn and soy, and the environmental consequences of Monsanto-like genetic manipulations.
I’m just not as religious and precious about it anymore. I’m looser in my approach, less driven and uptight. This top chef, that obscure ingredient, dissecting what’s on my molecularly gastronomic plate – I leave that for the next generation. All I really want to do now is breathe, relax, and cook up some beans and greens that warm me from head to feet when it’s cold outside. I want to break bread that I baked this morning with people I love and turn to them with soft suppleness and toast to our good health.