In late August 2001, I moved back east from Washington State to attend the Chef’s Training Program at The Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan. That was two weeks before September 11th. I was staying with my parents at the time and my father was still working downtown. He doesn’t talk about it much, but he saw the second plane flying low along the Hudson. Transportation had already come to a halt, so a co-worker from out-of-town walked with him and others sixty some-odd blocks to the Excelsior Hotel at Central Park. They stayed there until they could arrange rides home for everyone. The phone lines were down and he didn’t have a cell phone then – still doesn’t – so my mother and I were not in contact with him until he came home much later that night. With so much tragedy all around, I was in a muddle of grief and gratitude. Mostly, though, I was in a daze that lasted for weeks.
I could sense how Manhattan had irrevocably changed when I arrived at Grand Central Station and walked to the Flat Iron District. The streets and sidewalks were deserted. Shops were closed. There was an acrid scent in the air. A school bus tore through an intersection, stuffed full of uniformed firemen with solemn faces.
In the Chef’s Training Program, we introduced ourselves to one another across gleaming stainless steel counter tops and discussed what had happened. One woman shook while she spoke of standing on the roof of her apartment building, watching people jump from the crumbling towers. We decided as a group to cook meals for the police and firefighters. We had come together on Wednesday nights and all day on Saturdays for the next year to learn how to cook food that nourishes and heals. That is how we began our training.
At that time, I also began teaching writing and literature at a community college and focused on creating a safe place in which students could share their nascent work. With such a diverse student population, I felt it more important than ever to follow the guidelines of the Amherst Writers & Artists Method, which states:
- Everyone has a strong, unique voice.
- Everyone is born with creative genius.
- Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.
- The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer’s original voice or artistic self-esteem.
- A writer is someone who writes.
One student wrote and performed poetry that reflected his fears of a possible military draft, another took this time to write about a harrowing car accident that left her physically altered, but emotionally healed. There seemed to be a shift in consciousness around the world that was mirrored by my students’ adroit introspection. People who wanted to come to class were there and well-prepared. A couple struggled through to the end. There were only one or two who dropped out that year. I had a deep respect for these people who balanced work with school and, from a place of great self-motivation, found a way to pay for their education on their own. I wanted to serve them well.
Twice a week, I was deeply immersed in cooking whole foods: Learning about Chinese five phase theory, which foods quelled headaches or reduced tumors, and the medicinal effects of various spices. I took a special interest in sea vegetables, which makes sense now when I think about the fact that I’ve always considered my doppelgänger to be a mermaid and I have always had an abiding affinity for dolphins. Among my favorites sea vegetables was the mucilaginous digitata kelp, the Atlantic version of kombu. Maine Seaweed Co. harvester Larch Hanson says digitata “retains its own nature, throughout the seasons, in the face of constantly surging surf, harsh summer sun, and snail pests. I’ve come to appreciate this plant’s tenacity and flexibility, after having been driven out of its natural habitat, many times. It truly endures and thrives, in a zone I call ‘stressful.'”
I became my own experiment in nutrition and saw the dramatic effects of sea vegetables and other nutrient dense foods on my powerful digestion, smooth skin, and silky hair. I began to train for a triathlon at Lake Padden in Bellingham, Washington and, by Spring, was strong and light on my feet. New York had returned to its normal pace and I would disembark my train at Grand Central and run the twenty blocks downtown to the school, zipping in and out of pedestrians, feeling like a fish darting through a vibrant coral reef.
I brought salty, crunchy roasted digitata; sweet and spicy sesame-nori strips; and arame strudel to my writing classes and gave many of my students their first taste of these vegetables so high in essential minerals. And I began to see everyone – the New Yorkers rushing along the sidewalks, my colleagues, as well as my students who trusted the group enough to express their raw emotion – as beautiful fronds of seaweed, tenacious and flexible in the surf, adapting to an environment unpredictable and harsh, but always, always sustaining our growth.