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Health & Exercise Forum

Holiday Cooking Can be a Pain in the Neck: Part 1 of 2

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Dec 22, 2009

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumGuest Contributor: Judi Mackarey, Esq.



My fondest memories of the Christmas season are triggered by the fragrances wafting from homemade Italian ragu (tomato sauce/gravy) and the mere mention of the word calamari. The smell and taste of the food prepared with love by my “Nona” (we pronounced it Noni, grandmother in Italian) evoke the essence of Christmas for me, as a child -- and even today. For Rosina Scalese, my mother’s mother, holiday dinner was never merely a meal. It was a preparation for an event, much like one might do for a wedding. Once Thanksgiving was over (an American feast, so lesser in importance in the Italian food chain), the holiday planning began in earnest.  Nothing was allowed to interfere with the preparing and shopping for the most important and sumptuous meal of the year, the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which was served on Christmas Eve. Based upon the effort involved, it would not have surprised us if the Holy Family showed up to dine with us. They would surely understand why you cannot get a bad meal in all of Italy. It is not permitted. I suppose that explains why some sophisticated epicureans believe that Jesus was actually born in Modena.

Nona would take her daily walk to buy fresh provolone, olives, olive oil, prosciutto, and suprasatta from Morazzi’s in North Scranton.  She could only carry so much at a time, especially as she got older, so the shopping excursions themselves were a full-time job.  Finally, all of the ingredients were assembled to make an assortment of homemade pasta: gnocchi, (my favorite), ravioli with cheese (no meat for the holiday), lasagna, and linguini.  As she made the pasta, the big pot of sauce simmered on the stove all day. Next up in the grocery procession was the fish and bread order, which had to be secured weeks before the big night. She made it her business (pronounced bees-a-knees) to find out who made the best homemade Italian wine that season (Dago Red, of course) and made sure to reserve a few gallons for the family meal. As the day drew near, she soaked the bacala (cod), cleaned the calamari (squid), eel, smelts and anchovies.  Unfortunately, many tasks could not be performed before Christmas Eve day.

Of course, no meal is complete without the appropriate dinner arrangements.  Naturally, it was a requirement that the meal be served from her home. In her later years, Nona lived in a ½-double that was attached to my parents’ home, across the street from her original home, where several other aunts and uncles still resided.  The first floor of her home was converted into a banquet hall, with tables and chairs to serve an army. The grandchildren were enlisted to help with the setup, under the supervision of my grandmother .  Our extended family, like many of that time, was large.  Because of the numbers of attendees, plates and silverware did not match. Glasses came in all sizes. But the power to draw aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends was that of one-thousand oxen (or Italian goats). For us, Christmas Eve was the highlight of our holiday, almost eclipsing Christmas day itself.  Even as we grew older, no matter where we lived, we had to come home for the holidays.  Nona was wise and knew that this celebration would keep us all together. She cajoled us with the threat of her demise before the next holiday season.   She lived until she was 97, so we shared many holiday meals together.  But, she was right. As is the case with many families, we have scattered across the country and now only see the entire family for weddings and funerals. I miss her, but she will always live in my warm memories of Christmas.

As I look back, I now realize that all of this fuss took its toll on my Nona. She worked non-stop. Not just the shopping, cooking and baking, but the house-cleaning in preparation for the holidays. It was her day and it had to be perfect. She glowed with pride and satisfaction on Christmas Eve when her entire family (la familia) sat down to enjoy the feast made from love.

But, I can also recall the end of the festive evening, after the entire family ate, Nona finally collapsing in her favorite chair. She complained of back and neck pain, and rubbed her head from headaches. I now know that her forward posture, from cooking, cleaning and lifting of heavy trays and pots, contributed to her pain. This column is dedicated to all the people who will spend countless hours preparing for the holiday season, whether it is Christmas or Hanukah. I offer suggestions for prevention and treatment of neck and back pain associated with these tasks. Hopefully, it will help make your holiday more enjoyable. Merry Christmas! (Bona Natale!) Happy Hanukah!

Research suggests that many spine problems can be prevented by maintaining a good position and proper body mechanics. Poor posture and improper body mechanics subject the spine to abnormal stresses that, over time, can lead to degeneration and pain. Good posture and proper body mechanics can minimize current spine pain and prevent recurrent episodes. Posture is the position in which you hold your body upright against gravity. Good posture involves positions that place the least amount of stress on the spine. Good posture maintains the spine in a “neutral” position. In a neutral spine, the three normal curves are preserved (a small hollow at the base of the neck, a small roundness at the mid-back and a small hollow in the low back). When viewed from the side, the upper back appears straight with a small hollow in the lower back.

Good Posture

  • Standing: Feet should be shoulder width apart. Distribute body weight evenly through feet. Do not lock knees. Maintain a small hollow in lower back.
  • Sitting: Sit in a firm, high-back, straight-back chair. Buttocks should touch the back of chair while maintaining a small space between the back of knees and the seat of the chair. Distribute body weight evenly on both hips. Maintain an arch in the low back. A lumbar roll is recommended. It is a foam roll, 4” to 5” in diameter and 12” long, placed at belt level. Place feet flat on the floor with hips and knees bent at a right angle.
  • Sleeping: Sleep on a firm (not hard) mattress. Lying on back with a pillow under knees or lying on side with a pillow between knees encourages the neutral spine position.  Memory foam, down or synthetic down pillows are recommended. The pillow allows your head to be aligned with the rest of the body. If the pillow is too thick, the head will be higher than the rest of the body. If the pillow is too thin, the head will be lower than the rest of the body.

Read more about cooking and neck pain in Part 2.

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an affiliated faculty member at the University of Scranton, PT Dept.