How An Acupuncturist Taught Me To Roast My Vegetables And Relax

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.

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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.

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“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.

farmer's market Maine organic vegetablesI 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.

The Royal Flush

Design reigns supreme in Japan, and luxury design is as commonplace there as the mediocre is here in the States.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in a Japanese restaurant.  However, it’s not the interior architecture or the food styling to which I refer.  It’s the bathroom.

When I was opening Union Square Tokyo in Japan a few years back, I was fascinated by bathroom culture and design.  Our store didn’t have its own restroom, rather it was a shared commodity, with an anteroom and four stalls.  Sounds familiar, right?  But once I stepped into a stall, it was as if I ventured into the cockpit of a jet airliner:  all these buttons and levers and, of course, the unfamiliar Kanji characters (not, to me) explaining it all.  At least I thought I knew the basics:  sit down and let nature take its course.  But wait!  The  sensor alerts a mechanism to rotate the plastic liner on the seat before I sit down, which is slightly startling, and then once I do… Oh!  The seat’s warm.  You know that gross feeling you get when you sit on a public toilet, and it’s been warmed by the last person?  Your backside has just been IM’ed by the bare bum of a stranger.  Yuck.

That wasn’t the case, however – no one had been inside before I entered.  Then I keyed in on the display panel… who knew there were so many variations to relieve yourself?  I pushed several of the buttons, just to see what happened.  There were sound  options.  Odor options.  Temperature options.  To distract fellow stall-dwellers from any offending sounds or smells, I could make fake flushing sounds, at different volume levels (trickle, whoosh and Niagara Falls), and pick three degrees of deodorizer to scent the room.  The seat could be heated on a scale from room temperature up to ski-slope thaw.  And although I could practically bathe in the basin,  I was never bold enough to explore all the cleansing options.  I feared walking back into work with telltale signs of toilet water geysers gone mad.

Recently, I was reminded of my Japanese powder room explorations during my last visit to New York.  I was deciding whether to go high-end or low-end for lunch – a Shake Shack burger or the healthier sushi option.  The Upper West Side fast food line out the door swayed me –  to Gari – and I figured enough time had passed since my last raw fish dining mishap (laugh at my Empty Cup story).  Seated right away, I  decide to treat myself and order the omakase (chef’s choice) and a small carafe of junmai daiginjo sake.  Then, I ask for the ladies’ room.

In here I am instantly transported back, and this time I can actually read what each button is for.  As I lock the door behind me, I turn while the lid  rises automatically.  This is what’s so great about Nippon hygiene:  the seamless choreography of sanitation.  The lid self-rises, I can warm my chilled bum, gently shower my nether regions  – all with ease and discretion.  Of course, this is the scaled back US version and I feel slightly gypped.  I want the full, miso-soup-to-gingko-nut Tokyo experience, but I’ll either have to sell my car for airfare or settle for installing one of these modern contraptions in my own house someday, along with a Japanese soaking tub.

In the meantime,  you can vicariously experience the sheer bliss of bathing in Japan as I’ll soon share my hot springs in Hakone escapade.  The Japanese really know how to treat the naked body.

Thanksgivings Past

More than twenty years in the restaurant business means working thousands of  nights, hundreds of weekends and almost every holiday.  Pretty much the opposite of everyone else – all the paper-filing, Monday-hating nine-to-fivers.  This was both to my detriment and my benefit.  What I disliked was that I never got to see my family or friends who had day jobs.  What I liked was that the people I worked with became my family, all those refugees from the mainstream who came alive when the street lamps came on.

For seven years I worked at a casual, fine-dining eatery in the western Hudson Valley called Sugar Loaf Inn.  It was a carefree, family-run place that thrived on weekends.  We lived for those busy shifts:  Saturday nights, Sunday brunch, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day.  Not that we  necessarily relished working ’til midnight on Saturday and getting up early Sunday to serve mimosas and eggs Benedict to the masses per se, but those were our bread and butter.   We had to make them fun,  and we did, because choosing the resto biz means missing out on backyard barbecues, pool parties, and family reunions.  Stepping out of the mainstream also meant we couldn’t blame our absences on our job (although we usually did) but to be truthful, it was a life of our choosing.  Better to be going against the grain and be happy, then to be sucked dry by the daily grind.

The Caboose (photo from Sugar Loaf Historical Society)

During those years, I came late or sometimes not at all, to my parents’ Thanksgiving table and while they usually saved me a heaping plate of the traditional fare, I would’ve already eaten at the restaurant.

At the end of a  long, 12-hour shift, we would pop all the leaves in the large center table, and with a bonanza of food laid out before us, we would get to the task of our own turkey feast.  Our chef-owner was always generous with us – in a small restaurant we all carry the weight and he demonstrated his appreciation with a heaving  table of delicious food.  Someone would start uncorking bottles of the house red, others would pass plates of stuffing and mashed potatoes, and the sous chef would begin carving one of several leftover birds.   I relished this chance to sit and enjoy the company – our own island of misfit toys – after an arduous day bending to the emotional demands of the diners.  It was hard work catering to our clientele, especially on holidays – families bring their dysfunction to dinner out, as well, and often it would overflow on to us.  Once we all sat down together however, we would shake it off with hearty laughter and those bottles of red wine, satisfied that we had truly earned our keep, and our meal.

I still cherish those long ago days we labored and loved, for we grew up in each other’s presence, and celebrated each other’s lives along the way.  It was my second family, and every year on Thanksgiving, I am reminded of those happy days when we broke bread together and I am thankful.

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