Aveline Kushi pioneered the introduction of traditional Japanese culture in America. As a result, she changed America. In many ways, she was the embodiment of traditional culture. I remember seeing her often on the streets of Brookline and Boston wearing a traditional kimono. Needless to say, the sight of a tiny Japanese woman dressed in colorful kimono, tabi, and geta always caused quite a stir.
Aveline is probably best known for her introduction of Shojin Ryori, the traditional art of cooking for health and spirituality. Her cooking was always artful and delicate, yet healthful and strengthening. She had an intuitive mastery of food and the art of cooking. She referred to her art as the art of macrobiotic cooking, from the Greek macro, meaning “large” or “great,” and bios, meaning “life.” As Aveline explained it, to live according to macrobiotic principles meant to live a large or great life.
When it came to food and cooking, Aveline was a purist in the true sense of the word. She insisted on only the finest natural and organic ingredients, pure spring water, cooking utensils made from natural materials, and a natural gas flame. She worked with these raw materials to create true masterpieces in the kitchen. To her, cooking was the highest form of art.
When Aveline began teaching the art of cooking, most Americans were unfamiliar with many of her ingredients. She introduced and educated Americans about the health benefits of such traditional Japanese foods as organic brown rice, sweet brown rice, and millet; organic miso, shoyu, and tofu; udon, soba, and somen; wakame, nori, arame, hijiki, and kombu; daikon, lotus root, shiitake, and burdock; mochi, amasake, and brown rice syrup; and takuan, umeboshi, shiso, and tekka. Because of her efforts, these healthful traditional foods are now common in households throughout America. She helped millions of people discover the joys of natural food cooking. The traditional foods she introduced are now an essential part of a new, more healthful American diet.
For several years, I had the good fortune to work and study with Aveline and her husband Michio in Boston. I helped them establish the East West Foundation in Boston thirty years ago. I also helped edit Aveline’s books on macrobiotic cooking, natural beauty, and natural childcare. I remember often eating meals prepared by Aveline. Although all of her dishes were healthful and delicious, perhaps her greatest achievement was her brown rice. Aveline’s brown rice was close to perfect. Her rice always had a wonderful, glutinous consistency and an incredibly rich sweet taste. With every chew, it became more delicious and satisfying. Even today, when I cook brown rice, I strive to achieve the perfection I experienced at her table. Aveline’s brown rice is the standard upon which I evaluate the success or failure of my own cooking.
One of my favorite recipes learned from Aveline was her recipe for tofu-fried rice. I learned this recipe somewhat by accident, by happening to be in the right place at the right time. One afternoon, I wandered into her kitchen in Brookline. Aveline was standing over the stove frying brown rice in a large skillet. When the rice was steaming hot, she took a block of fresh organic tofu and began crumbling it with her fingers over the rice. She then mixed the two with a bamboo rice paddle, and delicately sprinkled organic shoyu over the mix. While continuing to mix with one hand, she effortlessly added a handful of thinly sliced fresh scallions with the other. After about a minute the dish was ready. She asked if I would like to sample the dish and I readily accepted her offer. It was delicious and satisfying beyond compare. She had taken three or four basic ingredients and harmoniously blended them into a complete and satisfying one-dish meal; the essence of balanced simplicity.
Aveline’s teachings about food were based on an intuitive understanding of the connection between humanity and nature. She taught the importance of organic and natural ingredients, and introduced the traditional practice of seasonal cooking with fresh local foods. Her book, The Changing Seasons Macrobiotic Cookbook, written with Wendy Esko, introduced an entire generation of Americans to the traditional practice of cooking according to the seasons. Today, thousands of books, articles, newspaper cooking columns, restaurant chefs, and cooking shows are repeating her original teachings on the use fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients.
Not only did Aveline change America’s eating habits; she also changed its sleeping habits. Before 1970, most Americans slept on a standard mattress and box springs. The word “futon” was not a part of the American vocabulary. In the late 1960s, Aveline began showing her students how to make traditional Japanese futons. Her Saturday morning futon making classes became legendary, as did her Boston-area expeditions to find cotton batting for use inside the futons. By the time I arrived in Boston in 1972, everyone in her macrobiotic student houses was sleeping on a futon. I got one myself and still sleep on one today. (I was also fortunate to locate several tatami mats, and for many years, enjoyed sleeping on a futon placed over these delightful rice straw mats.) Soon afterward, one of Aveline’s students opened the first futon store in downtown Boston. Futons were an immediate success, and now, thirty years later, are widely available across the country. Millions of people are enjoying peaceful natural sleep thanks to Aveline.
Another traditional art introduced by Aveline was the traditional art of Noh drama. Noh is the highly stylized form of dance and theater traditionally performed at Shinto shrines. In a Noh play, the actors wear colorful costumes and masks and employ chants and songs to tell the story. Musicians playing traditional drums and flute back the actors.
From its inception, Noh Theater was an exclusive male preserve. Women were not permitted to become Noh actors. However, this tradition did not stop Aveline. In the early 1970s she began to study Noh drama with Sadayo Kita, one of Japan’s leading Noh performers. Aveline became so enthusiastic about her study that she wanted to make the study of Noh drama available to others. She rented a studio on Boylston Street in downtown Boston, put in a Noh stage, and established the Kita Noh Gaku Institute. She invited Mr. Kita to give classes there, which she attended, along with other enthusiastic students.
She also arranged for Mr. Kita to give Noh performances at John Hancock Hall in Boston and Carnegie Hall in New York City. One of my first collaborations with Aveline was to help arrange these performances. Both performances played to packed houses and were well received.
Later, the Boylston Street studio became the office of the East West Foundation and the location for many of Michio’s lectures. Even after many years, people would refer to the East West Foundation office as the “Noh Center.”
The pace and rhythm of Noh suited Aveline. When giving cooking class, for example, Aveline’s movements were slow, steady, and deliberate, similar to those of a Noh actor. She exhibited poise under pressure. Even her driving took on a Noh dimension. Driving with Aveline was a rare experience. In those days, everyone drove big American cars. Aveline was tiny. Her feet barely touched the pedals. The sight of her sitting behind the wheel of a big American car was hilarious. She drove slowly and deliberately, as if the road was a Noh stage. I had heard that she once received a ticket for driving too slowly on Boston’s Storrow Drive! Everyone used to tease her about her “Noh driving.”
A number of years later, Aveline became fascinated with Shingon Buddhist chanting. She enlisted a Shingon Buddhist priest, Rev. Jomyo Tanaka, to teach her sutras and chants. Rev. Tanaka became a regular feature at macrobiotic seminars. Soon, Aveline herself began leading morning chanting classes at macrobiotic seminars while encouraging hundreds of students to study this esoteric sect of Buddhism.
Aveline’s drawings and calligraphy were exceptional. On many occasions, we asked her to contribute drawings and calligraphy for macrobiotic publications. Her drawings are featured in her Complete Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking and in Lessons of Night and Day, her book for children.
Aveline encouraged her students to see the beauty and poetry of life. Years ago she introduced us to the art of haiku, and encouraged us to write many haiku about our daily experience of life and nature. Now, children across the United States write haiku as a part of their elementary education.
One of the most precious gifts Aveline gave us was her love and care for children. She introduced us to Taikyo, or the traditional concept of “embryonic education,” in which expectant mothers are encouraged to eat well, maintain their health and activity, and cultivate spiritual awareness, in order to provide the unborn child with the best possible chance for a healthy and happy life. For Aveline, the education of children did not begin after birth, or in kindergarten. The education of children began at the moment of conception.
Aveline believed very strongly in the traditional wisdom that stated that each child was a “gift from heaven,” and therefore precious. Much of her teaching, writing, and personal guidance was dedicated to the health and welfare of the world’s children. Many families around the world owe their health and happiness to her. Future generations will acknowledge her love and compassion.
Aveline was a unique cultural treasure, a gift from heaven. Through her varied life experiences, her dedication to world peace and understanding, her world travels, her dedicated life as a wife, mother, and grandmother, and her arts and creations, she indeed realized the macrobiotic dream of a great life.