Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Zen Food

I've been enjoying reading Edward Espe Brown's cookbook Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings. I got interested in Brown when my friend Jerry said he started baking bread after reading Brown's The Tassajara Bread Book, which turned a lot of people onto baking bread.

Brown started cooking when he was studying Zen and started cooking at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California in the mid-1960s. So his book Tomato Blessings is about both learning to cook and learning Zen. He became head cook at Tassajara, published his book about bread baking in 1970, and then in 1971 was ordained a Zen priest.

In the introduction Brown has a section telling us "On the Importance of Having Fiascoes," and he thinks that having fiascoes is important both in learning how to cook and how to grow up. That sounded honest. He connects having fiascoes with the Dalai Lama's words that we learn most from difficulty. What endears me to this book is the story of his fiascoes that often introduce a recipe.

He tells us how he was a calm dishwasher but once he became a head cook he was stressed out and threw tantrums now and then. He was having so many problems with his fellow cooks that he says he talked to his Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi who told him, "If you want to see virtue, you have to have a calm mind." Roshi also said that cooking is not just about food but also about working on himself and working on other people. When Brown started to try to see the virtues in his fellow cooks, then he calmed down and got along much better with them. After this charming story, he has some recipes where he shows us how to see virtues in "the simple goodness of fruits and vegetables, black beans, and winter greens." Sure enough, the recipes teach us how to cook black beans, winter green salad with walnuts, roasted pepper, and chili crepes.

I love how Brown is so honest about how he struggles with his anger in the kitchen and then another section tells us when the other cooks rebelled against him as head cook. No other cookbook I've ever read has such a honest chef. How can one not love a cookbook that has a section "Finding Out that Food is Precious" leading into four beet recipes.

Another wonderful section is "Radish Smiles and All Beings Rejoice." Before I read this I always thought radish was a boring vegetables, but then I read Brown's story about going with two friends to a restaurant in San Francisco where the chef served as an appetizer just radishes which he describes as "brilliantly red and curvaceous, some elongated and white tipped, rootlets intact with topknots of green leaves sprouting from the opposite end. It was love at first sight." A little later he tells us the primary task of a cook is "to be able to see the virtue, to appreciate the goodness of simple unadorned ingredients." Because when we delight in a radish, then we have the basis for many many dishes, so radishes gives us many benefits. I think he gives a wonderful teaching on radishes. And also he shows us to accept the blessings of tomatoes. This is an utterly wonderful cookbook.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Albuquerque Cultural Conference

Labor Day I plan to attend The Albuquerque Cultural Conference which focuses

on "Dreaming Big: Cultural Activism, Writing, Education, and the Arts in the New Century."

The conference plans to have panels on "alternative education, writing for survival, cultural memory, investigative journalism, Southwest arts and culture, architecture and society, creating a people’s almanac, the work of poets and artists for peace and justice, and new creative forms for changing times. Workshops in writing for peace and justice, creative non-fiction, poetry, and recapturing memory in writing will be offered the last day of the conference." Readings
and get-to-gethers will happen in the evening.
For more information email John Crawford at jcrawfor@unm.edu  or to Leslie Fishburn Clark,
conference organizer, at e-mail ABQconference2007@yahoo.com. Also, consult and tell others
about our website at www.abqculturalconference.org.
Communicate, give us your thoughts, and please-COME. (Send money ahead! It's a good idea.)

They'll hold all our events, including panels and workshops, at the Harwood Art Center, a community place. See website for information on transportation, lodging, and meals.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Californians without pre-natal care

Wednesday, July 27 I went to the National Coucil of Jewish Women's building on Fairfax to hear speakers from Planned Parenthood speak. What was the most astounding to learn was 100,000 Californians aren't getting medical care because state in California Medi-Cal reimbursement for Planned Parenthood's medical services haven't been raised in twenty years.

Planned Parenthood clinics provide pre-natal care, HIV screening, sexually transmitted disease screening, cervical cancer screening, breast cancer screening, and other preventive heath care. These services are being curtailed. With too little funding, Planned Parenthood affiliates are forced to lay-off clinic staff; close a clinic such as Six Rivers; or are unable to attract doctors and nurses in many clinics. The San Francisco affiliate has 16 positions open due to lack of funding.

One tragic result they say is "all pre-natal services at our affiliates have been either curtailed, suspended, or eliminated." That means thousands of women in California have lost pre-natal care, exposing them to increase risk in pregnancy for both themselves and their babies.

Without staff, the clinics are forced to turn away people: in San Diego and Riverside Counties, 4600 patients turned away every month; in Santa Barbara, 2,600 patients turned away monthly; 1,000 monthly in Orange County. Nearly all of their clinics are turning away patients because they don't have the money to hire staff. They estimate that huge populations are without this kind of preventive health care. They estimate the clinics turn away 10,000 people/month or over 120,000 people/year. In Los Angeles, the clinics can only see 100,000 out of 700,000 people who need the services.

The result is a public health crisis in California. For example, in Orange and San Bernardino Counties where few people have access to clinic services, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases and teen birth is 22% higher than the overall state rate. The lack of funds is seriously eroding California's ability to reduce teen pregnancy and the public receives less protection sexually transmitted diseases.

The Planned Parenthood spokeswoman urges us to call Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez as the budget is still being decided in Sacramento. The Assembly has passed the budget but it is stalled in the Senate, with 15 Senate Republicans refuses to sign the budget unless they get more cuts. The Senate Republicans want to cut family planning, birth control and abortion from Medi-Cal services for teenagers who don't have parental consent--twice in the last few years Californians have defeated these parental consent propositions at the ballot box.

I called Fabian Nunez's office this morning, and had a short chat with the polite receptionist asking for the Assemblyman to support increase in Medi-Cal reimpursement rates for these kinds of preventive services that Planned Parenthood provides. I said I knew that the assembly had already passed the budget, but if the Senate can't pass it, the assemblypeople might be recalled, and then I hoped Nunez might act on this matter.

I think it might be a utter tragedy if a woman without pre-natal care might lose her baby or she or her baby might suffer greatly. Pre-natal care is a must. Screenings for diseases are also a public health necessity. After I made the call, I felt a great deal better.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Berkeley Food: Chez Panisse and the Beggars

When I was up in north Berkeley, I would walk by Alice Water's restaurant Chez Panisse twice a day as well as other expensive cafes as well as the homeless regularly begging on north Shattuck Ave. I thought the homeless beggars in front of pricey cafes was an odd combination. When I stopped to look at the Chez Panisse menu, I noticed that the dinner downstairs would cost about $75 and the second floor cafe, which I thought was much less, would cost about over $30 for lunch. I just couldn't bring myself to go.

I just read Thomas McNamee's book Alice Waters Chez Panisse

Cooking for me at Berkeley when I was an undergraduate long ago was a way of exploring the world; I explored everything from chop sticks to soybeans to cooking West African stews a high school friend taught me. French cooking I knew a little about as a teenager by going with my family to Robaires, a French restaurant on LaBrea in Los Angeles, because my dad knew Mr. Robaire a little. French cooking--Julia Child which I had read and Robaire's restaurant which I also liked--was to me part of the grown-up world where one had to dress to go to dinner. Some of my friends when their parents came to Berkeley and wanted to take them out to an expensive restaurant in San Francisco wore jeans in protest--that was shocking at the time. But I also had a grandfather who stared as a child in Russia, and since he had childhood malnutrition was very short 5' tall as an adult. His -American born son and daughter daughter towered over him.

According to McNamee's book on Alice Waters, the lady and her friends were trying to make a different kind of French restaurant at Chez Panisse. Waters herself based her ideal on Marcel Pagnol's movie trilogy, particularly a bar shown in the movie called "Cesar's Bar de la Marine, where friends could laugh, argue, flirt and drink wine for hours on end." What McNamee neglects to stress is this is a working class bar with a clientele mostly of fisherman.

For its first two years Chez Panisse seems to be run like loose hippie alternative French restaurant trying to serve a French country cuisine, but in 1973 Waters hired Jeremiah Tower as chef who brought the elaborate French aristocratic cuisine to the restaurant. With Tower's cooking the kind of food only the French aristocracy ate, Chez Panisse got it's first national recognition. It seems that Waters and Panisse near the beginning wanted to be both populist and aristocratic in their cooking.

When the chef cooks extremely elaborate cooking creations as Jeremiah Tower did at Chez Panisse, the chef is making himself an artist. In some ways Chez Panisse is a collective artistic creation that's offered for sale at lunch and dinner. Well, people spend a lot of money art. But if I were to spend $100 on art, I would rather get a print than a dinner as I can look at the print on my wall. At this point I would not want to eat as an artistic endeavor. And I also think of my grandfather starving as a child. I guess my world is too different from that of Chez Panisse.

I've written already on this blog about Waters creating the Edible Classroom at a Berkeley middle school where students grow food and then learn how to cook it. I much admire her efforts to bring back gardens and cooking to the public school. I learned to cook from cooking class in middle school and my high school Fairfax had a garden where students gardened. Both programs were abandoned by the 1990s in most schools, and Waters has done good work reviving gardening and cooking in the schools. Also she has done well in support farmers markets and small organic farmers.

The trouble with Chez Panisse's high prices for lunch and dinner is that it automatically eliminates many. What was wonderful about my own teenager Berkeley food experiences was that we used food to break down barriers, to share different cultures, to discover new foods like soybeans, and to explore the world. So my Berkeley food experiences are quite the opposite from today's Chez Panisse which puts up barriers. And the beggars still remain on Shattuck Avenue. Children still starve like my grandfather did in many parts of the world.The 1960s foodies I loved the most were the Diggers who fed the homeless runaways and then I admired my friend Carol Tarlen who went to jail for working with Food not Bombs feeding the homeless in San Francisco.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I went up to Berkley, and here's some of the things I saw. I went to the farmer's market Saturday in downtown Berkeley, and then was walking up Addison, and saw inside a building a demonstration of the Brazilian martial art/dance capoeira. My cousin David in San Francisco has been studying capoeira for years, and at his wedding last August in San Francisco his capoeira friends towards the end of the wedding joined in a circle and chanted while one or two people got in the center of the circle to dance or spar.

This trip I was staying on the northside in the area called the gourmet ghetto because it has a lot of pricey restaurants, flower shops, and boutiques, but I was struck by the green business called the Elephant Pharmacy which had free yoga and pilates as well as a $6 tweezer--very overpriced. I went to the steering committee meeting of the California Studies Association, and also picked up the xerxoes of my writer friend Carol Tarlin's collected poems and collected short stories. Tarlen died three years ago, but I much enjoyed sitting in the coffeehouses on the northside and downtown Berkeley reading her wonderful writing and walking on the Berkeley campus where I was an undergraduate. Actually, downtown Berkeley is within blocks of the northside, and both have cafes and coffeehouses. The street above is downtown Berkeley between the BART (subway) station and the university. The city of Berkeley has made a a good effort to fix up downtown, putting in benches, many shade trees, and also encouraging sidewalk cafes.

When you go east from downtown, you run into the campus, and I was struck by both the wonderful trees and the sculptures just off Oxford Street on the side of the campus near the biology and botany buildings. When I went to Berkeley it was mostly a science school, but at least now it has some modern sculpture and a
the Berkeley Art museum/Pacific Film Archives. The visual arts have definitely improved at Berkeley in the last decades.
While I was there the Pacific Film Archives showed a film by the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiraostani which I missed, but I did get to see the two fine photo shows the museum had. David Goldblatt's "Intersections" show are superb. documentary photos of contemporary South Africa while Abbgas Kiarosani's "Imagemaker" was a wonderful photos of snow, trees, and roads
in rural Iran. These were two spectacularly good photo shows. And the museum cafe had good food.
The Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives is just off-campus on Hearst, but if as I walked onto the campus itself , I discovered this old brick building to the right with the wonderful mosaic murals on it. A campus policeman told me that the old building is used to store the bikes of the campus police so its called the bike building--and one with gorgeous murals!