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.