I am sitting in the "relaxation lounge" at the Boutique Spa in the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, quaffing iced, lime-infused spring water, staring at displays of heirloom zebra and brandywine tomatoes, and wondering just what the hell I've gotten myself into this time.
Next door my new acquaintances, aesthetician Joana and reflexologist Marlene, are preparing a room for the spa's signature "tandem" procedure, a facial/massage and pedicure/massage performed simultaneously. The theme of this treatment? Olive oil and tomatoes, various concoctions of which are to be scrubbed, rubbed, and pounded into me. Downstairs in Bizcaya Grill, my long-time friend chef Willis Loughhead is preparing a tasting menu. The theme of this luncheon? You guessed it -- olive oil and tomatoes, numerous preparations of which are to be fed to me.
The point of all this is to introduce the upcoming Olive Oil and Tomato Festival, which officially launches August 13 and runs through the 24th. Just a few weeks ago, I publicly whined about restaurants that weren't running interesting summer specials. Apparently, complain and ye shall be received. Bizcaya chef Loughhead and Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove chef Roberto Holz decided to celebrate the season with the southern European fruits of summer, along the lines of their vaunted white asparagus festival they hosted in the early spring, by offering a three-course, prix-fixe, wine-matched menu featuring olives, olive oil, and tomatoes in every dish (and a shot of the featured olive oil alongside).
It turned out to be an even larger job than the difficult-to-purvey anemic vegetable had required. First they had to winnow down the specialty olive oils they wanted to use from a possible 28 to a final 7, most of which spring from single estates in the Mediterranean. Then they sourced the most flavorful (not to mention ugliest) heirloom tomatoes they could find, most of which hail from California (our season being over for the moment). Next they drafted Bizcaya's certified sommelier Ania Zawieja and experimented with wine pairings, sipping the oils directly before the vinos in order to distinguish the most direct palate-pleasers possible. Finally, bill of fare typeset and dates announced, the spa was recruited to adapt its menu to reflect the same comestibles. Thus before you tuck into one of Loughhead's first courses -- say, the trio of heirloom tomato salad, yellow tomato sorbet with octopus carpaccio, and micro basil salad served with Laudemio Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Marchesi de' Frescobaldi, Italy, 2002 -- and sip Zawieja's lean, crisp match of San Gregorio, Fiano di Avellino, Italy, 2001, you can indulge in a "soothing tomato wrap" and an "olive oil body glow polish." After all, why just eat the stuff when you can also wear it?
The idea shouldn't be too hard for me to take in; I often wind up wearing what I eat even when I don't intend to. The problem is, I would so much rather eat food, even spa food, than slather it on my body. I can dine in the most elegant restaurants in the world and not for a second feel out of place. But when it comes to spa sophistication, I am much more "ma" than "maven." Offer me a quilted robe that wraps twice around my body and I'll still keep my undies on under it. Show me a massage table and I'll lie down on it the wrong way. To even have a treatment as basic as a manicure, I'd have to stop playing guitar, forget my flute, and forgo gardening. And I won't even let my dermatologist see me without makeup on.
In short, I have the feet of a farmer, the hands of an arthritic old man, and the soul of a skeptic. When it comes to a spa, these are not qualities one brings to the table.
Nevertheless, here I am, vulnerable in a way I haven't been since childbirth, callused feet out for inspection, pores open for probing. Were it not for the aroma of freshly sliced tomatoes, I'd bolt. But predictably the smell of food, even if I'm not going to be eating it just yet, keeps me in place.
I decide being forthright is the best way to cope with the embarrassment of any potential faux pas that I am about to make. "I'm a pedicure virgin," I tell Marlene on the way into the chamber. She peers at the chipped blue polish on my toes that I haven't bothered to remove. "Who put that on?" A friend, I tell her, who was fed up with my refusal to pay attention to my footsies. In my pal's honor, we decide at the end of the treatment that I will opt for a hot, bright polish, perhaps a beefsteak tomato red. Going against nature -- but hoping to win my five-year-old daughter's approval, at least -- I choose a pink instead, called something like "Santiago Sangría." The fact that it is named after a drink comprised mostly of wine seems to me a good omen.
In fact the ladies are so gentle and nice I'm even persuaded to ditch my bra -- "I used to work at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, I've seen more naked women than you can imagine," Marlene assures me -- and slip under the covers with just a hint of recovered insouciance. Which I then immediately ruin by asking, "Am I facing the right way?"
Fortunately, no readjustment is required. Let the oiling begin.
Marlene has read me correctly, it seems. As Joana covers my eyes with what reminds me of the sungold tomatoes I grow, only sometimes successfully, in my back yard and my face is steamed like a vegetable, causing me to reflect that simultaneous spa treatments would probably not have been such a plus during the white asparagus festival unless one wanted to smell like soup, she engages my intellect (along with my feet). "Did you know," she asks as she clips my nails, "that the human skin will only absorb what it recognizes? That's why petroleum jelly stays on the surface. The skin doesn't know it."
I'm sure I hadn't been aware of that, or at least thought of it in those terms on any conscious sort of level, but suddenly using items like avocadoes and mayonnaise for home-remedy moisturizers makes a bit more sense to me. Certainly my own skin knows these products pretty well, if only at the moment from the inside out. But at least now I have an idea what to do with the immature, squirrel-gnawed avocadoes that have had the nerve to torture me by falling when I'm still collecting mangoes.
Actually, Joana says, mangoes are good for the skin, too. She is rubbing a blend of puréed tomatoes and mango wine into my chest and shoulders to encourage my immune system with their antioxidant powers. Later I'll probably be very attractive to raccoons, but at least cancer-causing free radicals have been temporarily spooked.
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By the time Marlene starts to scrub my calves with a coarse blend of sea salt and olive oil and Joana has applied a tomato masque that is supposed to balance my Ph levels and tighten my pores, I notice that my feet have turned outward. Marlene says this only happens when someone is truly relaxed. "Otherwise, your legs are tense and your feet are straight," she notes. Having never quite been in such a complete mode before -- indeed I almost tangibly miss my stress -- I take her word for it.
Not only does the relaxation linger long after the tandem treatment, which takes about an hour, concludes, the olive oil-induced glow in my face and hair takes me through a lunch of quail with foie gras and olive stuffing on crispy potato with black truffle, accompanied by a pour of Urbani Tartufi, Aromatizzato al Tratufo a Base di Olio di Oliva, Italy, and a glass of Arboleda, Syrah, Chile, 2000. I head home looking and feeling better than I have since BP (before pregnancy), toying with the idea of booking a white chocolate-macadamia nut manicure at the Facemaker Salon & Spa at the Alexander All-Suite Oceanfront Resort on Miami Beach or a coconut milk wrap at the Elemis Day Spa in Merrick Park. Both are bound to be equally delicious.
The sense of well-being lasts through a dinner of sushi and up till bedtime, and I picture rising the next morning with a cheerful outlook, an attitude I haven't copped since those school days when I had a soccer game to anticipate after the final bell. Instead I wake up at 3:00 a.m. with the sickly inner knowledge that the sushi I had eaten was not the freshest example of the genre, and I spend the remainder of the night suffering from yet another endless bout of food-borne illness.
At this point I consider myself not only scrubbed and cleansed but practically purified. Still, darned if my toes don't look awfully pretty in pink.