Almost right away, our teacher asks us to draw a “memorable food experience.” Nothing gets adults past their fear of anything, even drawing, faster than food. Gripping crayons passed around in paper cups, we sketch elaborate Thanksgiving tables, giant pots of comforting stew, and quite a few lobsters. When our teacher, Kripalu nutritionist Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RD, LDN, instructs us to get into small groups to share our renderings of meals, and thus ourselves—not much says me more than what we love to eat—the room erupts into a passionate cacophony of voices. Though we’re all here to learn more about nutrition and cooking, it’s easy to tell we don’t need to learn a thing about loving food. All food. This is no kale-fest (and I love kale). This is talk of the delicious, wild, “naughty” food that makes happy memories, stuffed bellies, and, yes, in excess, things like diabetes, obesity, and worse. But this first-session moment is just the beginning, meeting us where we are, as they say—and enjoying the delicious truths of our salty, fried, creamy, crispy pasts.
I draw lobster rolls at a grocery store’s outdoor café in Brooklyn. It’s nothing fancy, but I recall that while my husband and I stuff our faces with hearty pink lobster meat in a mayonnaise bath with a side of chips, we look at the East River, with its Statue of Liberty (our Lady, we call her), and the water taxis zipping around the dark, choppy water. The meal, our surroundings, and each other’s company make for a complete, sensory immersion in yum.
But today, Our Lady of Lobster Rolls is far away, and I’m here in the beautiful Berkshires, in a classroom of 40 or so others, to learn to feed myself better. I’m no nutritional slouch (despite those occasional lobster rolls). I eat my kale and like it—plus whole grains, some “happy” meat, organic smoothies with chlorella powder, and a bit of dairy. My main weakness is cliché: chocolate. Oh, chocolate. If there’s no dessert on the menu with you, I’ll skip it. If you’re anywhere in the house, I’ll find you. And sometimes, at night, when the hormones win, I can even hear you calling from the bodega across the street. Yes, Ben & Jerry can speak from inside those pints—and they seem to know my name.
I’m here because of those lapses, but also because I want to eat and cook to feel better. I don’t feel great, even when I drop sugar for monthlong stretches; my digestion is a bit unsettled and my migraine headaches are regular as rain. I’m also a cancer survivor and therefore know well the axiom that haunts many of us as we dig into a luscious bite of pie: “Sugar feeds cancer.” I would like to eat less of it, even if it’s just by displacement. If I eat more legumes and veggies, less bread, and, well, more veggies, maybe I can begin to push the sugar out.
I’ve also recently learned to cook and would like to know a lot more. Until I met my guy a few years ago, I was more of an assembler than a cooker. I’d assemble sandwiches, pasta with organic jarred sauce and steamed broccoli on top, and even a “Buddha bowl”—rice, seaweed, veggies, beans, and some tahini mixed with lemon, water, and garlic. It’s nothing I’d dare serve guests, but it worked for my single-gal-in-the-city life for quite a while. That, and the Mexican takeout place nearby.
The next day, Kripalu culinary nutritionist Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, and Kathie introduce our Kripalu Healthy Living program: Nutrition and Cooking Immersion. Stefanie talks about the well-known crisis in the food industry. You’ve heard it—there’s “pink slime” served in school cafeterias, our soil is depleted, GMOs are on the rise, and no one really knows how harmful they are. Factory farming is a moral abomination, and most seeds—the earth’s gold—are neutered and patented. She doesn’t say all of this, but this is the context in which we sit. It’s rough out there for a conscientious eater, not to mention confusing; sometimes it seems like the more I learn the less I know.
But thankfully our two guides seem well up to the task of leading us through the food morass: In the conflict of “healthy vs. yummy,” Stefanie, a French-trained chef, quotes Julia Child: “In matters of taste, consider nutrition. In matters of nutrition, consider taste.” Michael Pollan’s simple wisdom is also invoked: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And whenever the room gets confused—Honey, good or bad? Seaweed, nutritional knockout or full of arsenic? Coconut milk, a godsend or Satan’s elixir?—the teachers stay on message. There is a general consensus among nutritionists, they say, despite seemingly contradictory advice everywhere: Eat a balance of carbs, proteins, and good fats. “At least half your plate should be fruits and veggies,” says Kathie. And get your vitamin S—sleep, a “quintessential nutrient,” says Stefanie.
Since making good, healthy food is an experience, our book-learning (well, slideshow-learning) sessions alternate with getting our hands on actual produce. This starts in Kripalu’s fledgling garden. Kripalu nutritionist John Bagnulo, PhD, MPH, who helped architect and plant this patch, shows us eggplant, corn, zucchini, and potato beetles (ew, and interesting). It’s glorious to be in this newbie micro farm, with everything so green and lush and bursting with prana. I’m pretty sure every one of us is hatching a plan to become fire-escape farmers. I vow to re-sow my own sad basil box.
Then we’re in the kitchen, learning to chiffonade, among many other things. Stefanie tells her kids it’s “green spaghetti,” but it’s collard greens rolled and sliced into long, noodle-like strips—beautiful, bright green, and lovely. And so fun to say, that we do, over and over. All 40 of us—chiffonade! chiffonade! chiffonade!—every chance we get. Stefanie also talks about “pampering” your veggies in the fridge in either damp linen or paper towels inside plastic bags with the air pressed out. We embrace the idea of sending fewer veggies to the guilt graveyard.
Then Kathie passes around cups with a big gooseberry and a cluster of clear currants for a mindful eating exercise. She has us study the fruits. Smelling, holding, and finally placing them in our mouth and feeling the texture, then biting into an explosion of tartness. I notice tiny gooseberry peach fuzz, and appreciate the translucence that lets me see the currant seed from the outside. The flavor burst is a call to awakeness that shakes off some sensory sleepiness.
Throughout the week, we cook (green rice, mint-lemon slushy, bok choy coleslaw, chicken, and more) and learn cool things: mirin is delicious; Roastaroma tea is a good coffee replacement; Global knives are awesome; listening to Joan Jett while cooking is essential. We absorb tons of fascinating facts: Alzheimer’s is being called type 3 diabetes; tart cherries reduce inflammation; we have taste receptors in our guts.
And we eat. I’m obsessed with the Kripalu Buddha bar, which offers simply prepared dishes, like dahl and roasted squash, that I supplement with Kripalu House Dressing and avocados from the sandwich bar. Mmm.
One highlight is a visit from Dr. Mark Hyman, the renowned Functional Medicine doctor. We bombard him with eight zillion questions, which he answers gamely. I love this: How do you know if a food is working for you? “The best test is to stop it,” he says. “and see how you feel.” Duh, but wow, of course! I’m starting to see a theme emerge here, and it’s simple, simpler, simplest.
Our last day keeps it simple. After a round of nutritional Jeopardy! to help us synthesize all we’ve absorbed, we each share bite-sized wisdom we’re taking home: “Confidence,” “I’ll start eating breakfast,” “I’m going to plant a small garden,” “Passion,” and, of course, everyone’s favorite new word, which somehow sums up how this food thing really isn’t so hard or scary, and is maybe, most of all, fun: “Chiffonade!” We laugh. Joyfully, full.