31 July 2011

Tomato Soup and Jiu Jitsu

I actually wrote this a while ago, wasn’t sure what to do with it, and have decided to put it here, but I suspect it desires some context. I do, at any rate.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a ground-fighting sport (for those unfamiliar, it bears a faint resemblance to wrestling but it’s much more—in my humble opinion—elegant). It utilizes some elements of wrestling, but is far more versatile in its rules and movements and permits pragmatic elements such as the use of clothing and grips to achieve advantage (a thing not permitted in traditional wrestling).

It is an intriguing sport, which has a great deal of real-world application which is something I like in any kind of athletics.

If you prefer a visual explanation here’s a clip of a match, for additional context:

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Demo

If not, the following is my attempt to talk about my interests in cooking and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu…no, not in succession. Concurrently.

Recently I decided to take some oft-repeated good advice and bring a notebook to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ hereafter, for efficiency) class so that I could track my progress and remember to remember things. But I was in a hurry. So I grabbed the first thing I could find, which happened to be one of my many recipe notebooks.

I’m not the most naturally organized creature, so I have recipes written everywhere—in moleskine notebooks, in spirals, on random sheets of paper and even on the backs of grocery receipts. I know where the recipes are even if no one else does. Many of these scrap sheets of paper are covered in the carnage of cooking: a splatter of tomato juice on the edge of this page, and a smudge of garlic on that one.

That’s all good and well. I hope the same thing happens with the BJJ half of my notebook. I expect there will be sweat smudges and haphazardly written notes, jotted down by tired fingers and an exhausted arm. Notes that probably look like nonsense to anyone else.

The fact is that cooking and BJJ are far more suited to the same notebook than anybody might think. And, no, not just because BJJ makes you hungry. It’s because cooking starts awkwardly (measure, check recipe, pour, check recipe, stir---but don’t stir too hard! Don’t overcook it! Precision!) but eventually it sinks in and you can do whatever you want with it. You can deviate from the recipe and find a way that suits your skills and tastes. I hardly measure spices anymore, because I know how I like my spices. The more I cook, the less I need to look at a recipe. I know why they write all those tedious steps down—I know what they’re for—and I know what to do with it all and what not to do. The baseline has been established, and from there—I get to enjoy myself and make the recipe my own.

This is an awful lot like BJJ. The moves we learn on the floor we practice step by step. We have to break our bodies into the sport, like breaking in new shoes for running. It feels awkward at first. Uncomfortable. Precision is important. Details are vital. It MATTERS that you don’t put your arm there, or that you DO keep your elbow tight—however little it makes sense at the time—just like it matters that you don’t forget to add the salt (to almost any recipe ever).

As much as the details matter, though, there is a point at which the logic BEHIND the details sinks in. The purpose in the precision becomes clear and suddenly the move stops being a series of steps and becomes a smooth, instinctive thing all its own. Even beyond that, each choke, armbar, triangle or escape stops being its own individual move and starts being—well—like ingredients actually. You use which ones you need and, if that doesn’t work, you change it up, maneuver, experiment, find out which ingredients flow together and which don’t. The point is, the drilling and detail put these ingredients at your disposal. Then you have the baseline—the right muscle memory—and you get to enjoy yourself and make it your own.

Just don’t give up or throw the whole thing (out).

P.S.  The required definitions:

Armbar: A movement or armlock which hyperextends the elbow joint. The intent in a match is to cause the opponent to "tap out" (give up). 

Choke: Yes we all know what this is, but there are several different kinds available to you in BJJ, based on which ingredient is most suited to your circumstances and tastes.

Triangle: A kind of choke which is executed with the legs (what?! Yes, the legs) forming a 'triangle' around the opponents neck in which part of the choking is accomplished by the position of their own arm. Good for long-legged types.

Escape: If any of the above are being executed on you, this is what you do. Sometimes an escape is just pure logic, but other times it's a series of movements that only makes sense after you've done it many, many times.

(This is why it's good to like and respect the people you grapple with...you will be hurting each other on occasion)


  1. I love how many posts you have been putting up recently.
    So...I really wish that I could start taking BJJ here...do you think they teach that in Musoma? I am cooking more, and learning to experiment.

  2. It really is fun, and practical. But whether or not it has made its way to Musoma? I cannot begin to know. It seems...slightly unlikely.