Health, that new American Holy Grail, had me in its grip. My friends all seemed to be eating brown rice, vegetables sprinkled with sesame seed and protose soaked in whale oil.
My own feelings about food have long been ambivalent. No one can lure me to dinner by promising to cook a meal like mother used to make. My mother was a woman of infinite virtues, but cooking wasn't one of them; she raised my brother, sister and me on an endless succession of rubber roasts, boiled potatoes and peanut butter. We dreaded Sundays, for that day mother was apt to bake a cake as a special treat. The only "treat" that could match it for indigestibility was her lemon meringue pie. Her most spectacular catastrophe, though, was home-brewed root beer, an adventure that kept us in the kitchen for most of one day. The product added up to about 50 bottles of a dark, odorous brew that was finally corked and stored on a shelf in the basement to ferment. One summer morning the hazards of the fermentation process overtook us. We awoke to the sound of corks shooting out of bottles like bullets, followed by jet streams of sticky spray and shattering glass as the bottles rolled off the shelf onto the concrete floor. That morning my mother stood in her nightgown at the top of the basement stairs, observed the damage and declared, "Children, I give up! From now on you'll have to make do with store-bought food." It was one of the happiest days of our lives. Ever since, I have existed on food produced, prepared and packaged by invisible hands.
So that's my case history, and I might have gone on forever chomping on processed crackers had not a sporting crisis arisen that led me to investigate health foods.
I was taking judo at the time, in a ladylike sort of way. My only distinction in the sport was that I had been a white belt longer than anyone in the school. No one, not even children, avoided me. I had a propensity for lying down on the mat at the first sign of aggression. I have always been small, and no amount of exercise has improved my natural condition. I am a weakling.
"Switch to health foods," my friends advised. "What you need is nutrition for extra stamina." The idea was already in the back of my mind when I met Lady Goliath, a green belt bucking for brown who turned up in the dojo one evening, and, after wiping the mat with most of the class, challenged little old me.
"I am told that you couldn't toss a coin," she said. Very funny. I chose not to argue the point. She was one enormous cookie.
"Some other time," I said. "What I'd like to do is put on some weight so we'd be more evenly matched. So if you don't mind waiting until I add an extra hundred pounds or so...."
"You coward," she said, a fairly accurate description.
"Sticks and stones," I quipped lightly, remaining seated with my back to the wall, my legs tucked under me in the approved Oriental position of rest. Fortunately, the class ended at that point and I escaped to the street.
"She'll be laying for you," said one of my friends. And indeed, I began to hear rumors about what Lady Goliath was planning to do to me. I dismissed the talk as absurd but listened more carefully when a brown belt told me, "You have to start eating properly. Health foods will give you energy, a sense of well-being. You get the feeling you can take on the world."
Harry, my current flame, thought the whole thing was ridiculous. His theory was that a direct confrontation with Goliath, even one backed up by nutrition, was a bad idea. Cut and run was his advice. Harry never has had any particular interest in the martial arts, but he loves to eat, and he didn't like the sound of some of the recipes I was proposing as replacements for the Blimpies he was fond of and other hardy fare usually served when he came to dinner. The thought of lung-bean stew and brain-sweetbread salad left him cold. "There's a recipe here for leftover brains," I remarked, browsing through a new cookbook. Harry said I had none to begin with.
"Many athletes are hip to health foods," I pointed out. Harry has a general admiration for athletes. "Gary Player, for example, won't go anywhere without his raisins, nuts and wheat germ."
"You've got to expect an eccentric here and there," said Harry.
"Many football coaches have taken steak off their training tables, replacing meat with glasses of pregame glucose," I said. This news sent Harry into such a fit of depression he went home.
I shopped for the proper groceries the following day. My first stop was Vic Boff's Health & Fitness Aids on upper Broadway in Manhattan. Mr. Boff was unpacking a crate of cold-pressed soybean oil. He was an amiable man with a sturdy build and ruddy complexion. He was dedicated to the proposition that natural foods are better than processed foods. "Take this, for instance," he said, handing me an egg out of the refrigerator. It looked like an ordinary egg.
"Organic," he said. I looked blank. "These are all fertilized eggs," he said. I was still blank. "Roosters," prompted Mr. Boff softly. Ah! "Many farms now deal only in organic eggs." I dropped half a dozen into my shopping bag.
"Goat's milk," said Mr. Boff, pulling a carton out of the other side of the refrigerator. "Some people like it, some don't." Into the shopping bag. We paused next at a shelf of teas. Alfalfa, rose hip, peppermint, camomile, comfrey leaves, fenugreek, fennel, buckthorn, senna, huckleberry leaf, licorice, red clover, papaya....
"Many people believe in treating ailments with herbs," said Mr. Boff. He handed me a book by Jethro Kloss called Back to Eden. I opened it at random to a page devoted to cures for hiccups. There were seven in all, including the suggestions that one suck an orange, which seemed pleasant enough, or eat a piece of chalk, which didn't. My mother, who had never read Mr. Kloss, used to jump out of closets and go Araagh!, a cure the book didn't mention.
Mr. Boff was dropping samples of tea in my shopping bag, mostly products of West Germany with indecipherable labels, such as Aufgussbutel, Hagebutten mit Karkade—rose hips, said Mr. Boff—and something called Fixfenchel that was reputed to be good for gas, acid stomach, gout, cramps, colic and in a pinch could be used as an eyewash.
By the time I left I had acquired a sack of unbleached, unmilled, whole-grain flour, Biblical honey—so named because it comes from the manna plant, which I thought was very cute—and organic cookies, carob candy bars for instant stamina, dried apricots and a snack of toasted tiddley-winks.
Then I was off to Good Earth, an organic supermarket on the other side of the city, for a healthy bunch of carrots. Lips that touch insecticide shall never touch mine, I warbled. The next stop was at Greenberg's Natural Foods in the East Village. Mr. Greenberg specializes in beans, which fill immense bins. There were 15 varieties of beans to choose from in a multitude of colors—lentils, soybeans, aduki beans, black and pink beans, red lentils, pinto, navy, lima, horse and mung beans. I am very fond of beans. So is Harry. An artist friend of ours used to make beautiful pictures using nothing but beans, which he glued to a canvas in a variety of designs. He was a talented fellow, always looking for new mediums. I bought some aduki beans and headed for the Demeter restaurant, not far from Greenberg's.
The Demeter is a stronghold of macrobiotic devotees and hippies who know, or think they know, the importance of being not too yin (ice cream and fruit are yin) and not too yang (meat and eggs are yang) but somewhere in between so that the opposing but complementary Zen forces will prolong life and keep one from being sanpaku. Do the whites of your eyes show under the iris? You are sanpaku, a. disastrous thing to be in macrobiotic circles.
The Demeter, a small, dimly lit room, was furnished with wooden tables that were sturdy though unfinished. Behind a barricade four feet high at the back of the room was a steam table. A young man with very long hair was stirring something in a caldron. It turned out to be brown rice, which he ladled onto a plate and presented wordlessly to a customer. The customer took a mug from a shelf and poured himself tea from a battered and apparently communal teapot. No one paid any attention to me. I sat quietly, contemplating my bag of aduki beans and the organic carrots, which were going to give me a new grip on my destiny. Finally a girl dressed in an ankle-length skirt came over to my table. I looked her squarely in the eye so that she could see she was not dealing with someone who was sanpaku.
"What do you recommend?" I asked, as though torn between the cr√™pes suzette and mousse au chocolat. She gestured toward a blackboard attached to one wall, on which several items were scrawled in chalk.
"Tell him what you want." She pointed to the chef, still stirring trancelike, and moved off. "The tea," she added, over her shoulder, pointing to the kettle, "is free." It was hot and tasteless. It could have used some of my Fixfenchel. I ordered the vegetable plate, macrobiotic style, 75¢. Brown rice, beans, mixed greens and seaweed. The seaweed, with which I was making my first acquaintance, looked like a mound of thin brown worms that had been beaten to death. It tasted of fish and brackish water. Seaweed is apparently one of the higher forms of vegetarianism. "The Bible indicates that for 10 generations before the Flood people lived an average of 912 years. After the Flood they began eating flesh. The life of the next 10 generations was shortened to an average of 317 years," wrote a physician named Owen S. Parrett in an article explaining why he became a vegetarian.
That evening an enthusiastic friend bounded over with Zen Cookery, The Soybean Cookbook, The Natural Foods Cookbook, George Ohsawa's Zen Macrobiotics, a text on the philosophy of Oriental medicine, and a final offering that proved to be the most important of all. This was a jar of Bulgarian yogurt culture, with which I was to make my own nourishing yogurt.
I started immediately. Yogurt must be made in an incubator, preferably electric, but no special equipment is needed. A deep pot with a lid will do. Making yogurt seemed fairly simple, though the recipe nagged endlessly about keeping the temperature constant while the mixture thickened. Nothing is simple. First the pot was filled with a pint of fresh milk and brought to a boil. All one had to do after that was wait for it to cool to lukewarm, then pour in the Bulgarian yogurt culture, which had to be stirred with a wooden spoon. Meanwhile, six jars were warming in the oven. Finally, when everything including me was lukewarm, I poured the mixture into the jars, popped them into the pot, filled it three-quarters full of warm water and covered the creation with a lid. Mission accomplished. Just as I was wrapping a heavy towel around the pot to conserve the heat, Harry wandered in, nodded coldly and asked a not illogical question: "What's that?"
"An incubator. All we need do now is wait."
"The recipe says about two hours."
To pass the time we played Monopoly. Exactly two hours later I was building hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place and Harry was in jail. I sent him out to the kitchen to check on the incubator. He came back looking pleased. Without a word he picked up the dice, shot doubles and got out of jail.
"How are things in the incubator?" I asked.
"The baby is dead," said Harry. He was right. The yogurt looked drizzly—just like my mother's lemon meringue pie. Harry took me out to dinner and a movie.
In the days that followed I continued to attend, though on a purposely erratic schedule, my judo classes. I came and went at odd times, sometimes missing Lady Goliath by only minutes. Word filtered through to me that she was perfecting her inner-thigh throw, the uchimata technique seldom used by ladies. She had no way of knowing, of course, that I had a new technique, too; that my intestinal tract was awash daily with carrot juice, that my digestive juices were grappling with muscle-building proteins, that in the end her inner-thigh throw would be no match for my toasted tiddley-winks.
There had been, I confess, a slight accident with the aduki beans. I had set them on top of the refrigerator to soak one night, and had, unfortunately, forgotten they were there. Out of sight, out of mind. I am too short to see the top of my refrigerator. When the water became stagnant, filling the kitchen with a terrible odor, the beans had to be discarded and the room aired. No matter. I had never looked or felt better. My eyes were bright, my cheeks glowing. Harry said it was the pink light bulb I had installed over the mirror in the bathroom, but I knew it was the escarole sifted through my mixed greens.
It was two weeks after the yogurt fiasco that I was hard at work in my kitchen again. This was Operation Vegetable Juice. In a paperback handbook that had come with my two-speed blender some years before I found a recipe for Sunshine Cocktail. My blender was old and creaky, but I thought it capable of cranking up a little juice. I chose the simplest combination, passing up the more exotic beverages listed, such as the Mocha Bounce, the Prune Cider Teaser, the Polka-Dot Punch and the Fresh Plum Smoothee. The Sunshine Cocktail required mundane ingredients: a carrot scrubbed and cut into thirds, one-fourth of an apple with core and peeling, half a banana, a stalk of celery with leaves, one half-inch slice of unpeeled cucumber, a fourth of a lemon with peeling, a fourth of an orange without peeling, a one-inch square of green pepper, a teaspoon of raisins, a teaspoon of salted nuts and two cups of pineapple juice. When I got through there were a lot of wounded vegetables lying around.
Following instructions carefully, I poured the pineapple juice into the blender and dropped in the pieces of carrot, turning the switch to high speed. Nothing happened, but a thwack on the side of the blender got it started, slowly. The carrot swam around in the juice, looking like Jacques Cousteau in an underwater movie. In went the other ingredients, one by one, and the blender picked up speed. "Continue to blend until the ice is melted," I read. The body of the recipe had made no mention of ice. Better late than never. I took three cubes out of my ice tray and tossed them into the blender, which was now groaning like a man pushing boulders up a hill. Then I clapped on the lid. As the ice hit the blades I heard an explosion, and a fine spray of pineapple juice traveled upward. It was the root beer thing all over again. The lid of the blender shot in the air, clung to the ceiling momentarily, then dropped to the tile floor. Sunshine was running out of a wide gap at the bottom of what was left of the container. Then the doorbell rang. It was George, the building superintendent. Like most caretakers of Manhattan apartment houses, George has limitations. He has, in fact, a wooden leg and two fingers missing from each hand, but there was apparently nothing wrong with his hearing.
"I was out in the hall," he said, stumping after me as I returned to the scene of the disaster. Then surveying a wide streak of pineapple juice that was sliding down the wall, he said, "Oh, are you painting the kitchen?"
That evening in judo Lady Goliath finally caught up with me, sidling unnoticed onto the mat.
"About our match," she said. I gave her my most winning martial smile. "I'd love to," I replied, "but as you can see I'm about to work out with this 6-year-old and...."
She squared off and bowed, and habit is a terrible thing. I bowed back automatically, which meant, to her at least, hat I had accepted her challenge. My nutrition, which should have been coursing through my bloodstream, seemed lodged in my feet and they felt cemented to the mat. My judo instructor took one look at what was happening and turned his back. He didn't want to watch. Neither did I. I closed my eyes. When nothing happened I opened them. Goliath was towering over me, one mammoth hand grasping my left lapel, the other my right sleeve.
"Do something," she invited. "I'll wait." And she sighed and waited, raising one bunioned foot to scratch the inside of her other shin. She was showing off. Anyone who has taken judo knows that standing on one leg is asking for trouble. My reaction to her off-balance stance was impulsive, but who is to say it wasn't all that raw carrot salad? At any rate, what I did was jerk down on her sleeve and sweep—ever so politely—her foot out from under her. I can still hear the beautiful crash as she hit the mat. Everyone was stunned.
As my defeated opponent rose to her knees, I bowed quickly and, as they say, quit the premises. Into the dressing room, out of my gi. Skirt, sweater, shoes, purse, and there I was, flying down the stairs and into the cool night air, then down the street to the subway and home. Safe!
Well, that was all some time ago. Lady Goliath, I understand, has taken up karate. Harry is enjoying Blimpies again. As for me, I am still interested in nutrition, but feel it has given me its finest moment. So I no longer prepare health foods myself. In my opinion the hazards of the kitchen are greater even than the hazards of the judo mat. I am, I suppose, my mother's daughter.