Editor’s note: Robyn Swanson (pictured above), prep cook and sous chef for our Monday night dinners in Palo Alto, recently traded two weeks in sunny California for the snowy Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. What drew her there was an immersion course in macrobiotics at the Kushi Institute. This is her report:
I have been interested in macrobiotics ever since I became a vegetarian, back in 1995. I never cooked a lot of truly macrobiotic meals, since I enjoy simple things like taste and flavor, but I was still interested. I had always wanted to attend a program at the Kushi Institute (K I) in Massachusetts, but living in California all of my adult life, I just never found the time. I finally decided that it was an easy enough thing to cross off my bucket list (unlike, say, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro), and so off I went. The K I is housed in two main facilities: the North Hall and the Main House. The Main House has cozy rooms and shared bathrooms, while more dormitory-style rooms and bathrooms are in the North Hall. Classes are held in both. I was housed in the Main House and was quite happy there. The place is old, as are the beds and pillow—the Four Seasons this is not—but there is both heat and wifi, so I was content. The Main House (photo below) is old and rather spooky looking, but there is an air of calm and peace that prevails throughout both the house and the rest of the facilities. I went in March, and when I arrived, there was still a good amount of snow on the ground. Spring was waiting around the corner however, and by the time I left, much of the now had begun to melt.
When you go to the KI, you get three meals a day. These are all strict macrobiotic meals (not like what we serve at PMC). For breakfast (see photo below) there is usually some sort of porridge, boiled greens and miso soup. Lunch (12:30) and dinner (6pm) usually include a a grain, a protein of some kind (beans, tofu, fu, etc.), two kinds of vegetables, pickles and soup. On Tuesdays and Fridays there is usually fish and a dessert served with dinner, and often on Wednesdays, there is a fried dish for lunch. Meals are served buffet style with a “strong” side and a “mild” side. The strong side is for people without any serious ailments, and the mild side is for anyone with a condition or allergy. One thing I found interesting is KI uses shoyu for the most part, and seldom tamari, so some dishes would be marked “contains soy and wheat” and I would be scratching my head because it would look like a simple vegetable dish. Only later did I realize that shoyu was used and that’s why the dish in question was marked “soy and wheat.” But more on the meals later on. Chef Chris Jenkins shows off the fruit kanten he made. Above: A lunch the class prepared.
The first week is a program called The Way to Health, and is held once a month. It’s a great beginners macro program. This is a wonderful way to get your feet wet if you’ve never really understood macrobiotics or are confused on where to start. Even though I have been reading about macrobiotics for years, as well as working in a (gourmet) macrobiotic kitchen for close to seven years, I found there was lots for me to learn. Most of the cooking classes are demonstration classes, but on the last day, Friday, you do get to cook a little bit. Other classes include Home Remedies, Self-Shiatsu, and Menu Planning. There are also morning “vitality building exercise” classes at 7 am, but I only attended one. Each day they have different teachers, so if I was more of a morning person, I would have tried out different instructors. Above: weekly menu.
The schedules, for both Way to Health and Way to Health Plus are somewhat front-loaded. You are busy busy busy for the first two days, and then you have more time off as the week continues for rest and study. I liked this because one’s mind can only take in so much information, but I met another women who would have preferred to have more classes as opposed to time off. I can understand both ways of thinking. And since it was winter, and thus very cold and wet outside, it wasn’t like we could take a walk in the beautiful woods around the facilities. So instead I spent most of the time in my room reading or streaming HBO (hey, a girl’s gotta live).
The weekend between the programs (both are Monday through Friday) are totally free, but meals are served. If you have a car, then you are set for some exploring. If you do not have a car, make sure to make friends with one of the longer-term students, chefs, or volunteers so you can have an adventure over the weekend. I was luckily enough to be invited out on Saturday afternoon, so I got to have a little adventure that included a used bookstore, dinner, dessert, a search for a palm reader that was open at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night (our search failed), and then some fun at the local Veterans club (you read that right) called The World War II Club/The Deuce. Seriously. One part of the club is a bar-karaoke-pool joint, so that’s how I spent my Saturday evening: with new friends at a Veterans club. It was way more fun that it sounds.
On Sunday there is brunch, so only two meals instead of three, and then an orientation for the W2H Plus students who just arrived. Way to Health Plus is a continuation of W2H, and if you can make the time to come to both, I highly recommend it. Five of the original seven who attended W2H left, so it was just myself, a woman, and two new people who arrived. You can take W2H and W2H Plus at separate times, but depending on one’s schedule, I would strongly encourage that anyone interested in coming attend both programs back-to-back (there is also a discount involved). W2H is mostly cooking demos, and theory (yin & yang, food, digestion, etc.), but the Plus takes everything learned for the first week and puts it to use. Every day in Plus there is a hand-on cooking class and menu planning. So as a group (of only four, but often times there can be between 10-18 participants) we planned out a menu and then prepared it. And that was our lunch, so we ate what we cooked. This was both fun and challenging, I often preferred what we had decided to cook than what was served in the dining hall, but not always. For me, this was the most valuable part of the programs—hands-on cooking and menu planning. There is a huge difference between watching someone cook and actually cooking. I don’t plan on following a stick macrobiotic diet at home, but if I wanted to, I would have a really good foundation to expand upon. Other classes in Plus included self-shiatsu, bread making (delicious and deadly for the gluten-sensitive), soup making, and some basic knife skills.
Alright, now for a few personal notes. When you first get there (and for weeks afterward I assume), the food seems to be incredibly bland. And that’s because it generally is. Depending on your diet before you arrive, this is rather dreadful. I did become used to it after a while, but while I enjoyed lunch and/or dinner more as the days went by, breakfast remained a grievous affair. Brown rice or whole grain porridge of some kind, steamed greens and miso soup. That was it. Oh but there was tea, all the glorious tea you could drink. There was always roasted barley tea and kukicha tea plus hot water and some tea bags (green tea and genmaicha). I brought my own green and Earl Grey teabags just so my head wouldn’t explode, but I only used the Earl Grey a few times, and later on I was able to get by just on a single bag of green tea with kukicha and barley as the day went on. Okay, more on the food: all the meals are served buffet-style, and as I mentioned above, there was a “strong” and a “mild” side. There were almost always two soups: one with barley miso and one with a gluten-free miso (chickpea miso, brown rice miso, etc.). The miso soups didn’t have tofu, but usually lots of vegetables. This was fine, though at breakfast I wish there would have been a protein option (tofu in the soup, leftover beans, etc.). On occasion there was homemade nato, and while I did enjoy it, it wasn’t always easy to eat at breakfast. One very interesting thing that happened was that after about 10 days of super-bland meals, my digestion became very sensitive. I don’t have celiac disease, but I am gluten-sensitive. I can usually indulge a bit before getting sick, and so a little bit of seitan, or a dessert with whole wheat flour was fine. But then the bread making class happened. The bread was homemade sourdough bread from various grains: rye, spelt, whole wheat, etc., and it was delicious. We even made (well, “we” didn’t; this was a demo class) focaccia and macrobiotic pizza. It was truly a bit of heaven. Until the next day when very bad things happened to my tummy. But I will say that it was totally worth it. Sitting there in the demo kitchen with the smell of baking bread and pizza and olive oil and garlic, my mind drifted back to Rome (where I had visited last June with my husband on a vegan tour) and all I wanted to do was bask in the sun with pizza and wine and my husband. I was obviously homesick by this time, and my little reverie was ruined when I looked outside only to see winter still in full-force. But like I said, it was all worth it, even though it took a good full day for my digestive system to recover. On Fridays, you are given the option for a “take-out” meal. This is for anyone who is leaving to go home, or just leaving for the weekend. I was happy to take advantage of this because a safe, bland, macrobiotic meal was just what I needed while waiting for my flight.
Back at home, my digestion is still a little goofy and I have to watch not only the gluten (which is now totally off my personal menu), but hot spices and anything too “stimulating.” I’m back to my regular vegan diet, though I am adding more vegetables (which I did’t think was possible, but apparently it is) to my meals. Plus it’s wonderful to be back in sunny California. A few words on the kitchen at the K I: I was surprised, and yet not surprised to find that their kitchen worked a little like PMC. A menu is planned out in advanced, chefs are assigned duties (breakfast, lunch or dinner; though breakfast is a much simpler affair) and the the chefs work generally without recipes, and use their own prerogative with stated dishes. For example, if the menu states “sesame dressing,” the chef can decide what that means. Is it “sesame-parsley dressing” or “sesame-ume” dressing or whatnot. In our kitchen at PMC, our chefs write out the menus they plan to cook, but often leave things a little vague so they can have some wriggle room. I would often question the chefs and ask them what was in a certain dish or what cooking method was used. In particular, I found that the beans cooked at KI were much different than the way either I cook beans at home, or how we cook beans at PMC. The beans at KI were very creamy, almost to the point of being mushy, and had a dull texture, or coating to them. Everybody loved the taste of them; everybody that is but me. I kept thinking there was either a lot of kombu or barley miso in the beans, but after nearly a week and a half of talking to the chefs and other teachers, I finally figured it out: the beans in question were pressure cooked. And not just pressure cooked alone, but pressure cooked with onions and other vegetables. I had never pressure cooked complete bean dishes together (beans alone, yes, but never entire recipes). So this way was new to me, and for whatever reason, my taster did not register the “sweetness” of the beans that everybody else perceived. So this in itself was a great lesson: I learned what made the beans in question look and taste a particular way, and that my taster is apparently off (what everybody else tasted as “sweet” I tasted as “dirt.”). I also learned that I am not particularly fond of parsnips or rutabaga. So despite my difficulties (and these were truly my own issues) with some of the cooking at KI, I found my two weeks there very rewarding.
Now back at home, I am experimenting more with various cooking methods and techniques. I also have a new found respect for simple recipes. Instead of putting 10-15 ingredients into my stews or casseroles, I now opt for closer to 5-6 ingredients. It’s easier on the digestion as well as on the pocketbook. I made new friends, learned new cooking techniques had a wonderful time overall. If anyone should have any questions about the Kushi Institute or any of the programs there, please do not hesitate to grab either myself or our faithful kitchen worker Travis Bench (who volunteered for an entire year at KI) and ask us. If anyone should decide to go, you won’t be disappointed. It’s not a 4 star vacation by any means, but it is definitely a worthwhile learning experience
About the photos, Robyn adds this note: *Out of respect to my fellow students, as well as privacy issues, I have not included any pictures or stories about my classmates in Way to Health/Way to Health Plus. Everybody was on their own journey, and many of my classmates were either healing from or battling cancer, I hope you’ll understand why I have avoided any images or details of their struggles here*