Banana Yoshimoto’s “Kitchen”: Healing Meals

When her grandmother dies and she is left truly alone in the world in her late teens, the only place Mikage Sakurai can fall asleep is on the floor of their home’s kitchen next to the comforting hum of the refrigerator. Yuichi Tanabe, a young man who had befriended her grandmother, reaches out to her in his strange but kind way through this haze of listless grief, and Banana Yoshimoto’s story of realism with a touch of the otherworldly, of light and dark, of shared moments and loneliness, and—most of all—of kitchens is set into motion.

Kitchen is one of my favorite reads of all time. It holds a privileged position on the bookshelf of my life, right next to A Confederacy of Dunces. In other words, it’s a re-reader. The way kitchens and cooking comfort and heal Mikage—and Yuichi, after he experiences a tragedy of his own—is parallel to the way I feel when I have certain favorite books within an arm’s reach.

Yoshimoto’s book has been on my mind more than usual lately as I rework my food plan, because I think it can be easy to forget the communion that cooking, that eating together, represents. I’m making a careful point of not suggesting that eating itself is the unifier, when in this book and in most real-life instances, it is the communal nature of meals prepared and enjoyed together that brings joy and comfort to the eaters. When immersed in a weight-loss venture, it is easy to obsess over calories and food groups to the point that we isolate ourselves from the benefit of shared meals. In Kitchen, the kitchen as a source of nourishment, and shared meals as a talisman against the cold loneliness of the universe, play a central role.

Soon after Yuichi befriends Mikage, she is invited by him and his mother, the dazzling and gracious Eriko, to move in with them while she recovers a bit from the loss of her grandmother. Despite the relative suddenness of the offer, Mikage knows she is in good hands, partly because of the way the Tanabes’ kitchen makes her feel: “I looked around, nodding and murmuring approvingly, ‘Mmm, mmm.’ It was a good kitchen. I fell in love with it at first sight.”

Throughout one beautiful, idyllic summer, the unlikely trio share many meals after Mikage falls in love with cooking and applies herself to mastering the art with true passion. Looking back, she muses, “When I think about it now, it was because of my cooking that the three of us ate together as often as we did.”

Eventually, Mikage gets back on her feet, moves out of the Tanabe’s apartment, and obtains a job as an assistant to a well-respected chef. All the while, her love of cooking grows and the theme of sharing tea and meals remains central to the book. Her love of kitchens overflows into a love of the rhythm and soul of creating in them:

Memorizing the recipe, I would make carrot cakes that included a bit of my soul. At the supermarket I would stare at a bright red tomato, loving it for dear life. Having known such joy, there was no going back.

When was the last time you appreciated an item of produce that much? I can’t remember when I genuinely rejoiced over a fresh vegetable, or really taken the time to appreciate a perfect apple.

I won’t give away every nuance or plot development here, but I will say that Kitchen is very touching and also quite whimsical considering the themes of grief and isolation that it explores. Every time I finish reading this little novella, I feel oddly comforted. I picture Mikage and Yuichi making and eating a meal together, finding joy despite the heartbreaks they weather, and I know that everything will be okay. Perhaps Mikage is right when she hypothesizes why she cherishes this one part of the home above all others:

Why do I love everything that has to do with kitchens so much? It’s strange. Perhaps because to me a kitchen some distant longing engraved on my soul. As I stood there, I seemed to be making a new start; something was coming back.

For those of you who consider yourself to be dieting or in some way restricting your food intake: Do you find that your food plan has an isolating effect, making it difficult for you to eat in a group with others? And for all of you: Do you take pleasure in making meals to share with others? Are you, like me, just now making tentative steps into the kitchen? Can you find happiness in the promise of a bright red tomato?

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Weigh-in: Paper Plates

At today’s Weight Watchers meeting I weighed in and was met with a loss of 2.0 lbs. Right on! I just have to keep on keepin’ on, know what I mean? I’ve long known that persistence is the true challenge in this endeavor.

During the meeting we all wrote what we plan to eat for Thanksgiving dinner on paper plates (with stickers on them, no less) and then added up the Points in the food and talked about the importance of being prepared for holiday foodfests. (On a related note, I’ve made up my mind to forgo indulging much at work-related functions and plan to enjoy a bit more seasonal cuisine at the two big family holiday dinners: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those represent the spirit—and tastiness—of the season much more to me than an ordered-in buffet served out of vat-like containers, or a big mess of store-bought cookies.)

As far as my weekend goals are concerned, I’ve hit three out of four: moved some more of my stuff out of the storage unit, weighed in, and . . . joined a gym! The last one is the most exciting :). I worked out by walking on the treadmill for 30 minutes today, which may not be much but is definitely a start.

What I didn’t accomplish this weekend: Buying a simple cookbook full of healthy meals. This was not for lack of trying, because I spent a good hour in Borders sitting in a chair and flipping through a big pile of cookbooks. I kept being torn between the “light” cookbooks and the introductory/beginner’s cookbooks like How to Boil Water, which doesn’t include calorie counts with its recipes but does provide a good foundation of general cooking knowledge. After a while, my head started to spin so I decided to sleep on it all for a night or two!

General summary of how I felt this past week:

I’m not going to lie: it was a rough one, emotionally, when it came to my eating plan. On the outside, things were reasonably low-stress in my life, but I had a lot of inner turmoil regarding the food choices I’m making and the plan (Weight Watchers Flex Plan) that I’m following. I have found myself gravitating more to the “easy,” more processed food choices that my sweet tooth wants (Fiber One Oats & Chocolate bars) as opposed to the more wholesome options (celery with nut butter, or hummus on a whole-wheat pita).

In a way, the more processed foods, like the grab-and-go bars, are the “paper plates” of food, and the foods that take a little more thought for me or a bit of preparation are the “good china.” This is a war I’m waging in my head and in my body, and unless you have spent time truly addicted to sugary, processed foods, you cannot understand how painful it is sometimes. You just can’t. The mental battle takes a major emotional toll, as well as a physical one. It even affects your relationships at times. A feeling of dis-ease takes over. You don’t feel “right.” You are used to your paper plates. You are feeling vulnerable and tired, on top of all that. It ain’t easy, chickens.

Last week I discussed my pity pizza-fest, and Dr. J from CalorieLab offered this take on things:

I’m going to give you some real advice, OK? Learn to make your own healthier version of a pizza. No it’s not store bought, but it will get you past those times when you are weak. Occasionally get the store bought. Over time, you will enjoy and be satisfied by what you make. Trust me, you need to diminish your dependence on fat, sugar and salt or you will not pull this weight loss thing off, nor sustain it. Very few people are successful at weight loss and there are reasons for it, that if you do not deal with, you will not make it either. That’s the way it is. I’m sorry. I will not tell you this again.

How are you at taking constructive criticism? Mature, thoughtful, objective? Me neither—at least not at first. I am what could be facetiously called a fragile flower. I felt almost crushed by this advice; like I had disappointed a favorite uncle. I’m only two weeks into this weight-loss program, and I constantly question myself and the nutritional wisdom I’m bombarded with every five seconds. I’m hungry more than I’m comfortable with. I’ve wanted to throw in the towel multiple times. And now I felt like I was being told by someone I respect that I wasn’t doing enough. In other words, I focused right in on the “or you will not pull this weight loss thing off” part without soaking in the sound advice surrounding it. I fear this is a habit of mine. Tunnel vision for the negative.

Luckily, I decided to stop being such a baby about it. When I got beyond my bruised ego, I realized that I pretty much agree with everything Dr. J is saying in his comment. I just felt irritated and disappointed in myself that I can’t seem to get to that place of nutritional wholeness instantly. I’m slow and can still be side-tracked by frozen treats. But here I have an actual doctor giving me personal advice, and I am not going to ignore it! Not to mention the fact that I—the turtle!—totally read into the comment that I had to make these changes in the blink of an eye, rather than gradually. I have a habit of transforming everything into black/white, all/nothing propositions.

It just goes to show that our lives are shaped much more by our take on things than by actual events themselves. Our perceptions have so much power. If I can train my thoughts to perceive that I should use the good china regularly, pretty soon those paper plates will look much less attractive. If I can be kind but firm with myself, I stand a much greater chance of success.

When the Moon Hits Your Eye

Riding the bus home from work in the already-dark yesterday evening, I felt extremely dejected. I feel much better now, but at the moment I was in the emotion, I felt like crap. I was staring out the bus window thinking morbid thoughts when a glimpse of the moon appeared between buildings and treetops.

It was huge, and round, and bright.

It reminded me of pizza.

I was very hungry, and not in a good frame of mind. I decided that when I got home, I would order a medium cheese pizza, eat it all myself, and then hate myself a lot. I had a plan. I take comfort in plans, even when they are counterproductive and willfully self-destructive.

I got home and went to the pizza place’s website—no human interaction required!—and paused slightly. What would John eat when he got home, if I only ordered pizza for myself? I didn’t want to share my medium cheese pizza with him. I want to do this thing proper and I was NOT GOING TO SHARE. But then I considered our finances and realized it was stupid to get us each a separate pizza, so I compromised and ordered a large pizza, half plain and half with his favorite toppings on it. It was still not the healthiest choice I could have made last night, but it was an improvement. I even calculated that I could eat all four of my slices and still be within my weekly bonus Points allowance.

Quoi? But if that happened, would I still have license to wallow in self-loathing afterward? Oh, probably not. Dammit. But it was too late. I had already made the less-dysfunctional choice.

Which worked out well, because soon after the pizza arrived, I had a great phone call and felt lots better about myself and life in general. I didn’t want to spend the evening hating on myself. I ate three slices of pizza, marked it in my food journal, and was at peace with the choice I had made. How strange for me.

No Wire Hangers! No Instant Oatmeal!?

This morning I arose from my bed singing a showtune and gracefully stepped outside to pick some produce and herbs from my garden. Then I road my bicycle to the farmer’s market where I purchased 100-percent grass-fed free-range beef and chicken. As I peddled home under a blue sky, I thought of the delicious concoctions I would soon be whipping up in the large, stainless-steel theater that is my immaculate kitchen. The heavens opened wide and angels started singing my name in praise and then I woke up and realized that I have a cold, there is no vegetable garden in the backyard (mostly mud and shade, if you must know), and I never learned how to cook.

Weight loss is hard for me in part because in order to succeed I will have to abandon certain perfectionist notions. For example, consider the thoughts that ran through my head as I dragged my cough-wracked body through HEB this morning: You have failed if you get non-organic bananas! Anyway all bananas are from faaar away and you are killing the environment regardless. Your carbon footprint is the size of Lake Erie! Followed by: Frozen fish fillets? Are you fucking joking? You should be catching them fresh. With your bare hands. And then, in short order: Instant oatmeal?!! You philistine, has all your research taught you nothing?! They must be steel-cut oats. Steel. Cut. I had a vision of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford looming over me: “No instant foods . . . EVAR!!!”

I have to ignore that voice (although it makes some valid points occasionally), because if I truly indulged in its rants I would never begin. Never change. Paralyzed by inaction, I would continue my daily diet of candy, cranium-sized muffins, takeout, and pizza. As the 12-steppers say: Progress, not perfection is the order of the day. For me, eating even a single piece of fruit per day is progress. And today I’ve already had two! For those of you who’ve been on the healthy eating track for a long time, that may sound paltry. But for me it’s a major improvement in just the single day I’ve been back on Weight Watchers.

Although convenience foods (like instant oatmeal and Lean Cuisine Spa meals) still figure into my new food plan, I’m mixing it up by actually making some meals myself. To an individual more accomplished in the kitchen than I, making hamburgers tonight might sound like nothing. But for me? Major! So what if the bun is filled with ingredients whose names I can’t pronounce (I can see Michael Pollan frowning down on me from his locally-fed, sustainable cloud); well, it’s still a start. My primary goal is to lose weight eating from all the food groups, and to keep my sanity.

For the record, I really enjoy Michael Pollan’s work and the writings of the many passionate and idealistic real-food fans out there. Sometimes I admire them all so much that I think: Why bother? I’ll never be that green, that healthy, that self-sustaining. But then I set myself straight, re-visit my priorities, and realize afresh that Numero Uno is to lose weight and start incorporating fruits and veggies into my life again. Once I’m in a groove with that, then I can add some other stipulations, such as visiting the (admittedly awesome) farmer’s market for a few items Saturday mornings and sticking to buying only free-range meat all the time.

In the meantime, I’ll do what my budget and mental health allow for. Today, that meant store-brand lean ground beef and organic eggs and chicken. Not perfect, but progress. I’ll take it.

Soundbite of the Day

“Counting calories is so 1980s.”

Soooooo 80s.

Soooooo 80s.

This one comes from a tap dancer in a Broadway musical. In a recent New York Times article, however, she goes on to admit, “But when it’s right there, it’s kind of hard to ignore.” She’s referring to the recent policy of listing calorie counts on menus in New York.

They say that everything comes back around. Like when flared pants came back for that brief period in the 90s. And, more recently, those mod mini-dresses. So why not calorie-counting? If Atkins could make a comeback, why not the unglamorous yet persistent calorie? Indeed.

Soon they’ll be renaming it the nouveau calorie-based weight-loss plan. Shortened to NCBWLP, naturally, because acronyms sound authoritative. Someone go buy that web domain, STAT! Let’s make lots of money.

Everything old is new again. Except my lime-green raver pants from 1996. I suspect they may never be poised for a comeback.