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.

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