On a bitter cold night in rural Wisconsin, I experienced one of the most nourishing meals of my life. I had been taking a break from my whirlwind NYC lifestyle, living with my folks in hopes of regaining some vitality before moving back to one of the coasts. This respite meant spending more time with my parents than any healthy, self-reliant adult probably should. As such, I found myself sitting down for a meal with two of their close friends, a potter and a professional gardener whose lifestyles epitomized the most aspirational qualities of the “back to the land” movement of the ‘70s. In their sprawling backyard was a brick oven, pottery kiln, and a remodeled 19th century schoolhouse that now functioned as a gathering for yoga, zen meditation, and community art events. Despite the frigid cold they had miraculously just harvested the last vegetables from their greenhouse which contributed to our dinner. This particular meal started with traditional Italian fermented eggplants, fatty olives, hard sourdough, aged cheeses, and grass fed butter. Wine was poured and conversation flowed as we caught up on each other’s lives. Soon the poached carrots with honey and ginger arrived, as well as a big green salad with shallot vinaigrette. Fillets of venison, hunted by their son earlier in the season, eventually arrived at my plate. I was struck by how nourished I felt by this simple meal. The experience of slowly enjoying whole foods cooked to their highest potential, eaten in a warm communal setting, left me feeling deeply healthy and alive.
When I came back to NYC, I was inspired to bring this culinary enthusiasm back with me. Growing up with hippy parents who emphasized macrobiotic health foods and massive amounts of vitamins left me with an insatiable appetite for the latest health trends. As a budding wellness entrepreneur in the New York City scene, I am inundated and often inspired by the flashy, pristine Instagram feeds of my fellow wellness warriors. While I’ve always loved to cook, I’ve tended to follow health trends rather than focus on culinary pleasures. Feeling inspired by my winter meal in Wisconsin, my boyfriend and I started cooking more in the Alice Waters and Tamar Adler vein. This style emphasizes whole foods-based, pleasure-oriented eating in which health is not the emphasis but rather a natural byproduct. Health arises from using local, fresh ingredients that lead to optimal sensory pleasure. The result is meals that intuitively contain the right combination of nutrients - without the often reductionist approval of movements in modern nutrition.
One night, we sat down for big bowls of homemade ribollita stew. We’d been saving the crusty, stale ends of our sourdough for weeks. We mixed the bread with big tomatoes, homemade chicken stock, bunches of kale, grated Parmesan, dollops of olive oil and cracked pepper. This meal felt indulgent, like a slight deviation from our usual emphasis on healthy eating. No this was not a vegetable curry, kale salad, or chia pudding. Yet, I looked down and realized that within this one bowl lived an amalgamation of health trends that were masked by the delicious full-bodied flavor. This bowl provided the much touted benefits of the fermentation movement with the sourdough bread and aged cheese. We also were inadvertently following the latest dietary trends emphasizing healthy fats with the spoonfuls of olive oil, bone broth and parmesan. It offered the healing power of herbs through the oregano and parsley and our phytonutrient content was maximized through the variety of veggies. It even featured the prom king of all vegetables kale. Yet, the meal felt like it wasn’t fit for a self-congratulatory wellness Instagram post, and I didn’t even register it as a meal that was a net positive contribution to my health. What was causing this disconnect?
I have the same feeling toward the morning walk ritual I’ve started. Twice a week I meet a friend at an ungodly time and we walk together. Sometimes, we run errands or end up at the grocery store and carry our groceries homes. Despite our frequent jokes that we have officially become our mothers, this ritual of waking up, bathing our cells with sunlight while moving our bodies is already providing huge benefits. Yet, this walk is by no means glamorous in the glitzy world of wellness and pales in comparison to something hardcore and photogenic like the latest bootcamp class.
In a city that makes large profits by generating ever new “wellness status symbols,” simple tried-and-true healthy living seems passé and maybe even a little lazy. Novel, slightly inaccessible trends that make for sparkly Instagram feeds often require isolating one tiny aspect of well-being and repackaging it to seem special. With each new variation we wonder if this is the magic bullet we’re seeking. Think green juices, the latest fitness trend,be it Barre or SoulCycle, or meditating at a fancy loft space filled with dazzling crystals and fashion It girls. Admittedly I love and have participated in all of these things, but I invite us also to remember that health can exist in subtle ways that fit into our lives in more natural and less flashy ways.
I propose that cultivating true health might begin more simply and slowly then we’re often told. Maybe you begin cooking delicious recipes based on wisdom from old culinary traditions rather than from the latest health fads. And yes, maybe kale will even slip into the recipe without you noticing. Or, perhaps rather than trying the latest powder or potion to optimize your health, you could commit to something basic, profound, and unsexy like shutting off your iPhone and getting more sleep. Nonetheless, these fun, sexy wellness fads may have a place in it all; may they exist more like a dessert, something that’s inspiring and nice to have but not essential to the success of the nourishing meal.
What are some ways you cultivate health that you may have dismissed or undervalued in the current climate of flashy wellness trends?