The Thing You Are Afraid to Do

There are two things I have come to know for sure: one, that I must do the very thing I’m afraid to do; and two, mainstream health and nutrition advice is almost always completely backwards.

These two truths converged for me recently in a tub of lard. For years I’ve known the merits of this scorned fat, having read Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions and other sources. Lard got a bad rap in the heyday of Crisco promotion; we now know that high-quality lard, like duck fat and goose fat, is a gold mine of antioxidants. Their fat-soluble nutrients protect our cell walls, feed our brains, and steady our hormones.

I’ve also been, for years, a secret devotee in the Cult of the Swine. As a health-foods chef, by day I tout the virtues of sea vegetables and flax seeds; after hours, I tie my napkin around my neck and face plant into anything porcine: ham, bacon, chops, butt, even greasy chicharrones.

But when it came to lard, Big Brother’s nutrition machine had me brainwashed: Lard. Is. Evil. To eat it would make me a morally inferior human. While other parts of the pig might be more socially acceptable, lard is the purview of devil worshipers, carnal savages beyond hope of redemption.

Last Christmas I attempted to make my late mother’s recipe for pizzelles, a traditional Italian anise-flavored waffle cookie. Her recipe called for “butter Crisco,” an ingredient I would no sooner use than I would fall on my chef’s knife. I tried an all-butter version of the recipe, and while my Christmas guests were quite pleased with the result, my palate knew better. I began to wonder what my ancestors in the motherland used before Crisco, and the answer was obvious. I purchased a one-pound tub of lard, which sat in my freezer for months.

Then my sister sent me an article from by Pete Wells titled “Lard: the New Health Food?” Wells details the erroneous slander lard has endured over the last several decades and describes his own tentative foray into cooking with this forbidden substance. His conclusion? Lard “is a fat of rare finesse . . . as voluptuous as a Rubens nude, but not as heavy.”

Emboldened by his example, I made a batch of jalapeno-cheddar cornbread using a one-for-one switch of rendered lard for vegetable oil. When I opened the tub, the pearly smooth texture signaled my chef’s instinct that here was a fat of superior quality. Whereas butter separates into milk solids and butterfat when melted, lard remains completely itself: glossy, rich, jewel-like in its smoothness. In the cooked cornbread, the lard gave a crumb and moistness and lightness that I had never known with any other fat. It lent gravitas to the final product while modestly letting the other ingredients take center stage.

Tears trickled down my cheeks as I ate. What other treasures of life have passed me by because I was too afraid, or because I was following bad advice? My lard adventure drove home yet again that the things I fear most are just angels in disguise, beckoning me into a more opulent world. The trick is to open the tub and let the fatty richness out, even when all around would say otherwise.

I’ll try the lard pizzelles on Mother’s Day and offer them to my mother in heaven, who will no doubt enjoy them surrounded by little pigs with angels’ wings.

The Fallow Season

Two weeks ago Monday, I completed four and a half years as Food Services Manager at Spirit Rock. My recent activity there paralleled a year on the farm: Last spring, my crew and I planted seeds of a kitchen reorganization, which grew wildly throughout the summer and culminated last fall in a frenzied harvest of manifestation. And now, one year later, I’ve entered the fallow season. In traditional agriculture, the fallow time is the interval in which the earth rests between the fall harvest and the spring planting. Farmers plant cover crops, such as clover or vetch, to recapture essential nitrogen and replenish precious topsoil.

And so it is with my own little ecosystem. I easily lost a layer of energetic topsoil in last year’s flurry of perpetual production, so now I’m spending my days sleeping, meditating, walking the hills behind my house, studying cloudscapes and watching rain patterns, tending my neglected grief over my mother’s death last fall, and conjuring what seeds to plant this spring. I’m in the womb of the mother goddess, where life is pregnant with possibilities.

Last week I wandered over to Greenstring Farm here in Petaluma and discovered cardoons among the bins of early spring produce. Cardoons are a forgotten, nearly extinct member of the artichoke family; they look like huge, furry celery stalks with monstrous, bitterly inedible leaves. They are wildly loved by Italians and North Africans and virtually unknown to Americans. Though i cardoni were not part of my Sicilian-American upbringing, meeting them at the farmstand was nonetheless like running into an old family friend who says, “Hey! Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you to come take us home! Don’t forget about us, va bene? We love you and are still here for you.”

Consulting Elizabeth Schneider’s weighty tome, Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, I made her Creamy Cardoon and Portobello Gratin. Cardoons need to be pre-boiled to get the bitterness out of them; after that, for this recipe I sliced and mixed them with sliced roasted portobellos, smothered that in a cream/nutmeg/mushroom stock sauce and slathered it with grated gruyere on top, then baked it off in gratin fashion. Like fiddleheads, sorrel, asparagus, and so many spring vegetables, cardoons turn a hopeless gray when cooked, so the dish looked dismal. The taste was another story: the silky sauce, earthy mushrooms, and nutty cardoons sang a perfect comfort-food harmony that belied its homely appearance. If I had been blindfolded, I would have been in heaven.

Were it not for my fallow season, I would have overlooked the forgotten cardoons as too tedious to deal with and so would have lost the chance to meet that old friend, food of my ancestors. Such are the gifts of the downtime intervals in our lives. I wonder if our national epidemic of depression isn’t in fact a desperate cry for our lost psychic topsoil, for the dreamtime kiva from which life draws its deepest nourishment to begin anew.

Time for a walk in the hills. See you soon.

Getting It Right

I trained as a natural foods chef in the late 90s, which meant that my schooling had more to do with making tofu taste good than it did with learning classic culinary techniques. Fortunately, the natural foods education world has gotten hip to this shortfall, and schools today are cranking out more cross-trained cooks. Still, as any trained artist knows, mastery begins with the basics. All painters have to mix colors and stretch a canvas. All musicians must learn scales and chords. And all cooks must learn their sauces, even those made with white flour and white sugar. Health-foody adaptation comes later.

Even though the schools are better these days, I still suffer from the post-traumatic stress of failing the culinary standards, as evidenced even a few years ago, when I made scrambled eggs out of creme anglaise. Very sweet scrambled eggs, mind you, but still–scrambling the eggs is a big mais non! for the sauces sucrees. I remember looking into the saucepan in dismay and asking one of my cooks, “Can’t we just puree it in the Vita Mix?” He teased me for about a year over it, never stopped laughing. I could have thrown up all over those miserable eggs.

Enter Julia Child, patron saint of chefs everywhere. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One, page 588, Julia explains creme anglaise with fool-proof precision: “This sauce is a blend of egg yolks, sugar, and milk stirred over heat until it thickens into a light cream. If it comes near the simmer, the yolks will scramble.” She talks you through each step with such detail that, if you follow faithfully, failure is impossible. (I don’t want to steal Julie Powell’s thunder here, but after reading this and other excerpts of this resurrected classic I identify completely with the obsession that could prepare every recipe in the book in a single year.)

A few days ago, I made the creme anglaise nouveau. As I had a bowl of meyer lemons on my counter, I added some juice and zest after cooking and let it steep for a few minutes before straining. The pale yellow cream was velvety smooth, with a mother’s-milk warmth that cradled the delicate lemon tang in its bosom, just so. Ah . . . this was the taste of success, sweet success. I brought a cup to my cook. He finally stopped laughing. I finally forgave myself.

One of my friends defines shame as “should have already mastered everything.” Certainly, for me to carry the mantle of chef-instructor, one could argue that I should have already mastered creme anglaise, for pete’s sake. But truth be told, we natural chefs were so busy switching the white flour for gluten-free and using sucanat instead of sugar and defining a whole new genre of cuisine that we thought the basics were irrelevant.

I can tell my students how to prepare sea vegetables so that Dad from the midwest will genuinely like them. I can teach them beans and greens and grains til kingdom come. And, perhaps most important, I can help them treasure their mistakes as the dross that becomes the gold of culinary mastery. Because once a mistake is made fully, it’s never made again.

The Sovereign of Love

Holidays were not fun in my childhood. Among the ghosts from my past is one notorious Christmas Eve when my brother-in-law chain-sawed the tree on the front porch while my brother and I smoked pot in the attic, and my mother stirred the lasagna sauce in the kitchen, screaming, “Some Christmas this is!” Silent night, holy night, not at all.

In my warped and tender youth, Valentine’s Day was of comparable trauma. Being either in a crummy relationship or none at all, I would hunker down as soon as the hearts appeared in the store windows and pray that it would all be over soon, like the angel of death gliding silently past the lamb’s blood on my door.

A few years ago, however, I decided to celebrate the holidays on my own terms and am harvesting sweet results. This Valentine’s Day I’m hosting a dinner party, with my man of four-plus years and three other couples. On the menu is a rose sparkler, chantarelle- and wild rice-stuffed quail with a fig-blood orange glaze, roasted root veggies, heirloom chicory with walnuts and olives, and truffles and tangerines for dessert.

Cooking at home for friends makes me feel very cheffy. It’s part of the play of love, another thing I’m reclaiming in my life.

Last month I heard a spellbinding speech of Martin Luther King’s that included this passage:

“When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”

I found myself digesting these words over several weeks. If love is a force, then, like gravity or inertia, it’s involuntary. If it’s supreme, then nothing can surpass it. If it’s unifying, then nothing can be outside of it. And if it leads to ultimate reality, then it’s certainly much more than cut-out hearts in store windows, though certainly not separate from that, either. The love Dr. King describes has nothing to do with us personally, and yet it’s the very thing we’re made of.

Which leads me back to my party. Why even have a party? Why cook for anyone? For that matter, these days why cook at all? My first Dharma teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, used to say that to express appreciation of any kind furthers civilization. Without it society degenerates into mere function, and the colors of our landscape fade into gray. To dress up, to put flowers on the table, to clean the house and arrange the seating and plate the food–all such gestures are little deposits in the cosmic bank account of Love.  They return dividends of kindness and decency and affirm that life, by itself, of itself, is worthy of such offerings.

All chefs know that cooking for others is an act of love, even if they’re too grumpy to admit it. Whether it’s cooking with love or cooking to be loved is irrelevant. In the end, if the love Dr. King describes does reign supreme, then there’s no one cooking, no one being cooked for, and nothing being cooked. All the more reason to celebrate, wouldn’t you say?

Mindful Eating

The last time I ate fast food was in the spring of 2000. My two friends were jonesing for Mickey D’s, and I, who can count on both hands the times I’ve ever eaten drive-by grub, accompanied them out of anthropological curiosity. I opted for the fish sandwich, thinking it a more virtuous choice over a burger or chicken-like nuggets.

As I held the parchment-wrapped victual in my hands I felt delightfully naughty, as I often do before indulging in any peccadillo, and I was overtaken with the giggles, much like Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me, where he kisses his first Big Mac in front of the camera and says, “Look! Isn’t it beautiful?” before he chomps it down.

Within three bites of the sandwich, a universe of revelation unfolded on my palate. The fish patty, still partly frozen, tasted of stale freon gas. The rancid frying oil clearly hadn’t been changed out of the fryolater in a while. The wonder-bread roll had all the fiber of two cotton puffs; and the “special sauce” broke its emulsion and dribbled in a slimy stream down my chin.

As I chewed, my inner anthropologist ruminated, “This is what America eats.” I continued to eat not for enjoyment, and certainly not for nourishment. I ate to gain more intimacy with the context of this sandwich. With the next bite I tasted overconsumptive malnutrition, a new phenomenon in human evolution, in which we are consuming a surfeit of calories so bankrupt as to leave us malnourished. The next bite bore the flavor of attention-deficient children who recognize the double golden arches before learning their own names. The last greasy bite finished my palate with the degradation of the home-cooked family meal and the chronic-fatigued ambivalence of parents who know they need to feed their kids better but can’t prevail against the hydra of overscheduling, lost cooking skills, children’s whining, and the latest happy toys.

With that fish sandwich I tasted, chewed, and swallowed the decline of our American society. More than any external enemy, I thought, this diet will destroy us from within.

In Dharma circles, a popular mindful eating exercise is to take one raisin and look at it, notice its texture, smell it, put it in our mouths without chewing, chew it without swallowing, and then, after some prolonged interval, swallow it down.

While such a practice can connect us with our immediate experience,  our understanding of mindful eating needs to expand beyond what’s going on in our mouths. In our current food system, mindful eating must encompass the relationships that give rise to the food, the activities that get the food to our table, and the consequences of our choices. Wendell Berry says that “eating is an agricultural act,”  but it’s more than that. If we contemplate deeply what and how we eat, we can trace our umbilical cord to the rest of creation. We’re eating no longer for ourselves but for all sentient beings.

So if you feel like “you deserve a break today,” consider that, just as a certain savior died for our sins, legions of people are already eating junk food on your behalf and are paying the karmic debt for it. You can repay their kindness by shopping at farmers’ markets or starting a garden this spring. Or just making the best, most conscious food choices you can. Their well-being depends on it.

The Ambivalent Carnivore

I just got home from Marin Sun Farms in Point Reyes, where I purchased 7 pounds of ground goat offal for my kittykat, Ali. (Here I’m playing Deep Throat of the pet food world: Marin Sun Farms, upon customer request, will sell you their meat-grinder trimmings for your domestic beast to enjoy. You have to buy 5 pounds minimum; so unless you’re feeding a drooling St. Bernard, have them package it in small portions.)

Looking at the bags of glistening ruby flesh on the store counter, I realize that I’ve shortened Ali’s food chain considerably. This is a different procurement system than his canned tuna flakes and kibble. I touch the bags; the meat is as warm as if the goat were still alive. Tentatively, I ask the counter guy: “Where did this goat come from?” “Uh, Bolinas.” “When was it slaughtered?”  He pauses, “It came to us yesterday, so it must have been . . . Monday.” I almost asked if he knew the goat’s name, then got it that he didn’t want to talk anymore about the slaughtering of this or any animal.

Driving home, I contemplate the sentient being whose ground-up remains are in my cooler. He was probably male, as females go to milk production. No doubt he had a romping pastoral life on the foggy Bolinas ridge–before Monday, that is. While I was contentedly making granola at Spirit Rock, this young ruminant was heading for the euphemistic “processing facility.” No matter how much Michael Pollan says that eating animals helps propagate their species, there’s no way around it: It hurts to kill another living creature. But death must occur for life to continue. I feel defeated. Sorry, sweetheart, I think to myself. It’s not human law; it’s divine.

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says,

Man lives by killing, and there is a sense of guilt connected with that. . . . The basic hunting myth is a covenant between the animal world and the human world. The animal gives its life willingly, with the understanding that its life transcends its physical entity and will be returned to the soil or to the mother through some ritual of restoration.

Years ago I cheffed a conference of CSA farmers in the Pennsylvania Poconos. A goat farmer who wanted to promote goat meat (versus the usual cheese) brought me and Chef A. two whole carcasses: beheaded, hooved, skinned, and eviscerated. Over six hours Chef and I broke the two beasts down into 1-inch stew chunks; I stopped only to pee, drink water, and wring the blood from my apron. This was childbirth in reverse. I was no longer a chef; I was midwifing the next day’s goat curry.

And the curry? The grassy, gamey, herbaceous meat was full of prana, as explosive as an orgasm. Nourishment of another magnitude. Collapsing after the last 14-hour workday of that conference, I sobbed with gratitude for the intimacy and suffering I shared with those two creatures, who proffered their bodies to me like holy communion.

So much of Buddhist teachings seek to blur the lines between subject and object. Who’s eating? Who’s being eaten? This time around, Ali eats the goat. Next time, the goats eat Ali. The time after that, the goats get to butcher the being formerly known as Marcella and serve her up in a sumptuous Marcella curry. When we Dharma people take the Bodhisattva Vow, we literally offer ourselves as food for all sentient beings. We recognize that we are, as Chief Joseph said, threads in the weave of life, woven primarily by the elaborate choreography of who eats whom. With each bite our debt to that weave grows deeper–and, if we’re lucky, more delicious.


Hello Friends,

Welcome to The Contemplative Chef. I’m Marcella Friel.

On these pages I’ll share with you my musings on food and cooking, sanity and insanity, as these have played out in my 10-plus years as a chef and cooking instructor in meditation retreat centers and nonprofit organizations, mixed with 20-plus years as a student and teacher of Buddhism.

“Sometimes the Worst Horse Is the Best Horse”

These days, if chefs are not the Next Food Network Star, they might as well fall on their chef knives and call it quits. Somewhere between those extremes is the lost middle way of just making good food.  I sometimes wonder if chefs ever look at their best effort and feel like they just made dog food. If so, how do they get up and prepare the next meal?

Last night I had supper solo at a trendy flatbread joint in Mill Valley. As I sat sipping my Mas Vino and noshing my organic lamb-fennel sausage bread, I felt a warm hand land on my back. Before I could turn fully, I was in the embrace of J., one of my students in the Natural Chef Program, where I am member of the faculty. J. is a tiny, energetic 20-something who tends to bounce up and down and pump her fists in the air when she talks. “Chef!!” she exclaimed with a beaming smile.

“Hey! How are you? How are you doing in class? How are you feeling about your finals?” I proctor the students’ final demos next week.

Her bright smile turns to a mock frown. “Oh God! I’m freaking out!”
“Why? Do you hate your food?” I draw from my own pathology in attempt to bond with her distress.
“Sometimes, yes! I feel like I’m the worst student in the class! My food is the worst!

After I reassure her that she’s better than she thinks she is, she’s a bit pacified, gives me another hug and a few smiley bounces, and returns to her friends at their table.

I leave supper feeling gratified to run into J. Driving home in the slogging rain, I contemplate the conviction with which she condemned herself. Why do so many of us turn against ourselves when it comes to our creativity?  Earlier in my career I had moments where I would hide under the stainless steel island, just praying, oh god as long as they don’t throw the food against the walls I’ll consider it a good night. What is this madness?

Like a whisper from the recesses of my mind, the tale of the four horses from Sunryu Suzuki-Roshi’s Dharma classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind plays through my memory:

The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

Roshi then explains that “sometimes the best horse is the worst horse, and sometimes the worst horse is the best horse.” The worst horse is beginner’s mind: open, empty, full of possibilities. The best horse is expert’s mind: tightly sealed in its own knowing, the possibilities are few.

Before Julia-mania hit fever pitch, around 2004 I watched over 100 episodes of The French Chef, circa 1963 to 1971. In those undiluted food shows Julia Child flopped her tarte tatin, lost her bag of flour and walked off screen to find it, stuck her wooden spoon handle in the blender while it was still running and sent shards flying. Her buche de noel looked like a big turd, with stumps falling off as she props them up with gobs of icing. “Oh well,” she’d say, “Life is like that.” Her motto, apparently, was never apologize. Never. Apologize.

Julia was indeed a worst horse who, through pure joy and perseverance, plodded her way into the pantheon of America’s iconic culinary masters.

Perhaps our path of mistakes is the best gift we can offer others. As a Chinese Zen master said, “Awkward in a hundred ways, clumsy in a thousand, still I go on.”