“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates 431 B.C
Food as medicine doesn’t sound that appetising does it? The usual diet for many westerners is neither food nor medicine; it’s just chemicals pretending to be food. Likewise, our “medicine” is chemicals designed to mask symptoms; not medicine at all. Food as medicine was the norm for thousands of years and still is in other systems.
In the Ayurvedic system, one of the oldest and longest standing in the world, herbalism and nutrition are a single science, and no healing can be truly successful that disregards one or the other. Specific foods are prescribed therapeutically as herbs, or in combination with herbs. Eating correctly, according to your body type, is the most important aspect of Ayervedic healing.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is rooted in the Ayurvedic system, food is regarded as indispensible in regaining the yin-yang balance and healing. Traditional Chinese Medicine designates four uses for food: diet, medicine, tonic, and abstention.
Doctors are not required to advise on nutrition in the UK, it is covered in just a few hours in the first year of study. Their job is to diagnose, prescribe and refer. It doesn’t really have a lot to do with healing. Hippocrates turns over in his grave one more time.
Hippocrates was considered the “father of medicine”. He is well-known for rejecting primitive medicine and its superstitions and magic in favour of a scientific and rational approach. He is also famous for establishing a code of ethics, doctor/patient confidentiality, note-taking and patient record management. It is less well-known that he insisted his students study astrology, saying, “He who does not understand astrology is not a doctor but a fool.”
The Greeks had medicine long before Hippocrates. Their medicine originated Egypt, the home of alchemy. The historical and cultural links between alchemy and medicine have been systematically destroyed over many generations, but the memory still remains in the endo-psyche of our species. What does that mean? It means that if you sit quietly in nature, or look into the fire and pay attention to your body you will experience specific sensations and feelings and these will direct you to exactly what you need. It never fails, but it does take practice and this is how we get to cooking.
Alchemy can be arcane and complicated or as simple as bringing together a container, a substance and a catalyst. Purists might argue that cooking isn’t alchemy, as the substance that is cooked is not transmuted; a carrot is never transformed into ice cream, no matter how skilled the cook. However, carrots protect you from heart disease and cancer, are anti-inflammatory, can improve your eyesight and support your brain and liver. I don’t go along with the notion that everything works exactly the same way for everyone all the time. Sometimes I want a carrot and that’s exactly when I need it.
Cooking as alchemy needs to be outside with a real fire. The first stage of alchemy is called the nigredo, blackness, suffering; the medieval manuscripts are full of references to putrefaction and death. In psychological terms it is about depression and the dark night of the soul, but in cooking as alchemy we are not talking about anything that intense. But wait until you are hungry before you start the process. Feel your hunger. If you have a health issue or are stressed about anything, feel that too and don’t push anything away. Then look at the flames for a while.
Flames have a wonderful way of quietening the mind and gradually begin to think about what you would like to eat. Of course, you will have had an idea before you start and you will have certain food available, but make sure you have a good supply of different ingredients and spices to hand. Notice the flavours, spices and textures that appeal to you. As you allow the recipe to emerge notice how you feel about different ingredients as they come to mind – the White Queen is always present in the feeling.
This process of feeling your responses to different ingredients corresponds to the albedo, or purification stage of alchemy. The purification is in the process of identifying and selecting the ingredients that make you feel good when you think about them. This is how you free the spirit from the physical matter of the food. It’s not about following a fixed recipe, this food is perfectly tailored to your needs at the time you are making it. If a new combination comes to you go with it. The Red King guides you to discover something new, or a different combination. The cooking corresponds to the rubedo or reddening stage. In this stage the spirit is reunited with the food, through heat, and a new “wholeness” is achieved through the combination of the ingredients and the intent brought into the process.
This is something to play with and is fun to do in a group. The alchemical marriage takes place in the merging of the ingredients to create something new. And where is the Philosopher’s Stone? Perhaps in the way you feel when you eat food prepared in this way. With time and practice you will find yourself guided to the foods that support your healing.
Cooking is just one aspect of the practical alchemy of healing that we enjoy here. We work with the local healing plants, grow much of our own food and make most of our household and personal care items. It’s all alchemy!
Our next retreat is at Lammas and runs from 31July-4th August 2014.