Health, humor and a holistic approach

Chef Jessica Porter will be giving cooking classes in Israel. Here, she talks about how macrobiotics can transform bodies and souls.

macrobiotic meal_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
macrobiotic meal_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
She had always been funny, in that sarcastic and sometimes biting kind of way. When an eating disorder led her from New York University’s graduate school in acting to a macrobiotic cooking class, Jessica Porter amused herself during classes she found tedious by thinking up jokes, calling her milk-shake fantasies “macrobiotic porn.”
She had no idea that soon she would abandon milk shakes, caustic humor and her acting career to teach – with humor – how grains, plants and pulses can transform bodies and souls. Macrobiotics, a primarily vegan diet and philosophy that seeks to balance the properties of foods with the person and his or her environment, does not have to be dogmatic or somber. In fact, it can even be fun and funny, she says.
While studying macrobiotics for three years at the Kushi Institute in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, Porter worked with terminally ill patients and others of all religions and backgrounds.
After traveling around the world as a personal chef and macrobiotic instructor to wealthy businessman and celebrities, she studied hypnosis to help people attain their goals through suggestion.
Looking for a way to channel new teachings about yin and yang balance through macrobiotics in a way that was young, hip and humorous, Porter penned The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics in 2004, which sold more than 60,000 copies.
When actress Alicia Silverstone became a vegan and an environmental and animal activist, she signed Porter on to co-write The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight, and Saving the Planet. It ascended to the New York Times Best-Seller List last year, and Porter felt empowered by her research for the book that sparked ideas for more writing.
While working as a chef, instructor, comedienne, writer and hypnotist in Los Angeles, Porter takes a break every year to teach at and emcee the annual Holistic Holiday at Sea vegan Caribbean cruise. During that time, she catches up with Ginat and Sheldon Rice, a couple she met years ago in Maine, who now live in Jerusalem and run Rice House, the country’s macrobiotic teaching center.
“Jessica is one of the most popular and well-respected macrobiotic teachers. Her classes on the cruise are always full, and her audience always leaves her classes wiser, inspired and entertained,” says Sheldon Rice.
This year, the Rices persuaded Porter to come to Israel and teach. Before launching the first of her 12 classes on December 10, Porter talked to The Jerusalem Post about her own transformation of body and soul and how macrobiotics can inspire followers to less anger, greater joy and vitality and optimal health.

What drew you to macrobiotics?
When I first heard about macrobiotics at age 16, I thought it was weird and disgusting. At Brown [University], I studied semiotics, and it was a very creative, open place and I did a lot of theater. But we also had to sign up for a course taught by our student adviser. My third choice was Eastern religions, and that’s the one I got. I wasn’t that interested, but as it turns out, this class gave me a very broad history. I didn’t have any idea, though, that I would spend my adult life practicing exactly these things – Taoism in food, meditation, Tai Chi, hypnosis. Now it all makes sense.
After Brown, I got into New York University’s graduate acting program. Halfway through I was getting help for an eating disorder, and I went to a macrobiotic cooking class. I started caring about the play of my life and wasn’t interested in playing someone else, so after six months I quit. I stayed in New York, cooking macrobiotic meals for health food stores. It was a very exciting time. Eating three macrobiotic meals a day put my life on a rocket ship of change.
What changes did you see in yourself when you started eating macrobiotic?
I had been overweight, always exercising, dieting, binging, weighing, sometimes purging, always under a cover of misery about food and my body. One of the last things they teach you at the most expensive education of your life is the most fundamental and important element of our lives – how to keep this being functioning. You can talk all you want, but if you eat crappy food, you are going to have crappy thoughts.
When I started eating macrobiotic, I was eating a lot but lost a lot of weight. Emotionally I became very sensitive. When you eat such natural foods, it tunes you into nature. I started noticing flowers and [plants] and slowly I was becoming made of those things. Suddenly, I just awakened to the world, seasons, my inner world. “Oh, there is where my colon is,” and my intuition got really sharp. So many moods and feelings are also our bodies processing what we eat. When I stopped eating sugar, whole parts of my personality changed: I felt less self-pity, less victimy, less depths to my sadness, and the length of time I’d feel sad was reduced significantly. I had to tolerate more happiness, and that’s not always easy – you have to rewrite your story.
Critics might argue that anybody who loses a lot of weight, exercises and eats less sugar might also feel stronger and clearer. What is different about macrobiotics?
Maybe on some level you can lose a lot of weight drinking diet soda full of chemicals or just restrict your calories, but I was actually eating only whole, fresh and nutrient-dense foods, so every system in my body – my brain, my internal organs, my cardiovascular system – was being more nourished than ever. Just as if you put a plant in mineral-rich soil with proper light and sun, it’s going to thrive.
You have trained and cooked for dozens of individuals with terminal illness. Did you see recoveries or changes in their health and attitudes?
Yes, I saw changes. Was there always a complete recovery? No. Recovery has to do with a number of factors. The first step for recovery is generally a need to practice very strictly, and for a lot of reasons that’s not so easy. Second, I also believe that when your time is up, your time is up. A Jewish doctor I cooked for who was diagnosed with three weeks to live eked out almost a year – that’s major. But maybe his body was so damaged and weakened already when he started. You need to have such a constitutionally strong life force to survive, and the vehicle sometimes can and sometimes it can’t.
That is a very black-and-white way of looking at it. My mother, for example, was macrobiotic on and off for 14 years. At home she generally ate very healthy but traveled a lot and was not strict. Ten years into that she was diagnosed with melanoma and passed away four years later. One could argue that her death was a macrobiotic failure. But if you look at the arc of her life, those 14 years were the happiest and most fulfilling years of her life and of her marriage.
So did I see change? Yes. Is it possible to recover? Yes. Is it always possible to turn around the diagnosis? No. But even when set to die, a person on a macrobiotic diet will experience a death that is more gentle, more peaceful and more connected than when they don’t eat this way.
What other kinds of change do people experience?
Once when I was working as a personal chef in Canada, a woman after 10 days said she knew she had to get a divorce. We just nodded. We get the clarity that comes from eating whole foods, which frankly can be a little scary because it reveals what’s really going on inside, and sometimes it’s frightening to know our deepest truth. It’s not unusual in macrobiotics to see people make an about-face.
You have worked with a lot of terminally ill people. What is it like to be teaching to and cooking for people who are near death?
It was deep and meaningful and a privilege to share their journeys. I would get on my knees and kiss the ground. There, and in New York, where I volunteered at a hospice organization, I got up close to people at the end of their lives. I was helping to guide them in very crucial moments of their lives toward a healing tool that was very powerful and one that had the power to turn their lives around. I was a schmoozer with a background in theater, and this job brought all of my interests together. I felt very blessed to have that opportunity.
What inspired you to write The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics?
Yin and yang can seem confusing, but at the Kushi Institute I found it fascinating and empowering, and it occurred to me that no one was writing about it in a way that made it easy or with a sense of humor. What was coming out was sanctimonious and serious. George Osawa [the modern founder of macrobiotics] was a guy who injected levity. Thanks to Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, macrobiotics has become really chic; but I think it is misunderstood often as a restrictive, dogmatic, food religion.
When you look at food trends, to eat whole, local foods, more plant-based, organic and in season – macrobiotic people have been doing that for 60 years; it is just common sense, real food and a great, traditional way. What is weird is what we’ve gotten to in society: fast food. In the US, 76 percent of the population is overweight and children ingest caffeinated soda instead of water. That is insanity but is considered normal, and we wonder why we are sick and have anxiety and depression. It’s delusional not to see a connection. It shows how far gone we are that macrobiotics is what is considered weird.
Foods from the nightshade family like tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes and peppers are vitamin-rich anti-oxidants, but in macrobiotics they are considered deadly nightshades.
One problem with the science of nutrition is that it is reductionist – it takes food as good or bad. But the macrobiotic way of looking at is that there may be nothing wrong with a tomato on a summer day and if it’s growing in your yard [or locally] and nature hands it to you. Or if it is processed traditionally – long-cooked, as it reduces acidity. But nightshades are known to cause inflammation. I’m macrobiotic and I have potatoes, though, at least once a month and don’t have a significant reaction.
There is a prejudice on how the Western mind seeks right and wrong, which does not exist in macrobiotics. If something works for someone, it works. There are things to take into consideration, such as climate, season, time of a person’s life, ancestry, constitution.
The modern macrobiotic philosophy is based on the work of George Osawa, who believed that we have to eat healthy food to be healthy enough to play. Play meaning eat whatever you want. Life is about freedom. Some macrobiotics is strict and about recovering your health. But people like me, who got in at 23 and don’t have a medical condition, open up to living life and eating freely according to intuition, because that is what it is really about. Food is fuel to live life, and life is about much more than food.
You’re going to teach classes in Israel. Here there are strong emotions, positive and negative. What would be a macrobiotic approach to such an emotional environment? The macrobiotic way of looking at something, when you get in touch with the body and clean it out, is that it becomes more energy than form. There is more space than matter in molecules, and this is true regardless of race or religion. We all have a pancreas, spleen, gall bladder, etc. That is our standard equipment, so we pay attention to that and not to differences in skin color or stories.
Macrobiotics is fundamentally apolitical with no bias about where the information gets disseminated. I know that I don’t understand the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but when you reduce internal pressure on a person’s body by eating healthier food, life changes.
Could things change just by eating differently? Could centuries-old resentment evaporate? I don’t know; I have not experienced that. But I have experienced erasure of very entrenched feelings in my own life and have seen it in the lives of others.
What’s next for you?
Now I’m working on a book for women, how to age gracefully, stay active, have healthy hair and skin and reduce risk for breast cancer and osteoporosis through a deeply nutritious, almost vegan diet. It should be out in about a year.
Cook's tour
• Is Being Healthy All It’s Cracked Up to Be?
December 9, 7 to 10 p.m., Rehov Rachel Imenu 34/7, Katamon, Jerusalem.
• Hypnosis for Health
December 11, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., Rehov Hahoresh 126, Ramot, Jerusalem
• 12 Ways to Cook a Carrot
December 12, 7 to 10 p.m., Rehov Ha’admor Miboyen 10, Har Nof, Jerusalem
• Love in the Kitchen
December 13, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Rehov Komemiyut 8/3, Ra’anana

• Simple and Scrumptious Desserts

December 13, 3 to 6 p.m., Rehov Yael 6a, Kfar Saba
• Cooking for Romance
December 14, 7 to 10 p.m., Rehov Aza 37/1, Jerusalem
• Ridiculously Delicious, Simply Healthy Appetizers and Desserts
December 15, 6 to 9 p.m., Aba Gil Restaurant (dinner: additional NIS 65), Rehov Yehuda Halevi 55, Tel Aviv
• Take Care – Advanced Seminar
NIS 220. Potluck snack or dessert. December 18, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., Rehov Margolin 15A/1, Yad Eliahu, Tel Aviv
• Hip Desserts
December 19, 10 to 1 p.m., Rehov Yoav 4, Greek Colony, Jerusalem.
• Lip-Smacking Leftovers
December 20, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Rehov Yonatan Hahashmonai 30, Efrat (Zayit neighborhood)
• Breakfasts and Brunches
December 21, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Wellness Center, Kalanit 20, Beit Shemesh
• How to Love Your Body
December 22, 7 to 10 p.m. Mevo Hapa’amon 4, Ma’aleh Adumim
Prices: Single session NIS 120; prepaid session NIS 100; three or more sessions NIS 90 each. For information: (02) 566- 936; 052-365-0004 or shelgin@gmail.com


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