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Other Books by Ed Brown

A Recent Article on Ed Brown the Tassajara Bread Book,
although it was, as far as I know, back in 1995 that the last revised edition came out. - DC                     Books by Ed Brown   
Ed's Tassajara and Suzuki stories excerpted from Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings

Flour Power


March 30, 2003

New York Times Magazine

How small and humble this book is to have made such a big difference. Look at it: the title, ''The Tassajara Bread Book,'' in calligraphic type. The circular cover drawing -- a loaf of bread and sunflowers -- like something from a small-town literary magazine. The cover itself, made of coarse brown paper. Even the text, printed in brown. You feel as though the book should be sitting on a butcher-block kitchen counter 30 years ago, next to an avocado pit that someone's trying to sprout in a jar of water.

The 30-years part would be right, anyway. ''The Tassajara Bread Book'' was written in the late 1960's by a young Zen student named Edward Espe Brown, who lived and worked at a Zen retreat named Tassajara, in Monterey County, Calif. His manuscript was published in 1970 by the Shambhala press in Berkeley, Calif. The book began with a $100 advance and a 3,000-copy printing. Now there are 750,000 copies in print, and it still sells a steady 3,000 copies every year. Many people consider it the bible of bread baking, one of the most influential cookbooks ever, an inspiration not only to bakers and chefs but also to an entire generation of food writers. The same bread and sunflowers remain on the cover. And Brown, who was ordained as a Zen priest in 1971, is still working to disseminate his vision of what we could be, if we could remember how to use our hands.

Those of us who remember baking our first bread in the 60's remember very, very heavy bread. When you're using whole grains for the first time and you're using yeast for the first time and you can't believe that the bread dough actually has to double in bulk before you bake it -- because no matter how pure and virtuous bread baking is, whoever heard of a food you have to wait for? -- well, like the majority of first-time bakers in the 60's, you turn out loaves that could be used to build forts. This somehow seems to add to the bread's moral worth, but worthiness isn't much fun to eat.

''The Tassajara Bread Book'' changed that. Not that our parents' food tomes, like ''The Joy of Cooking,'' didn't have bread recipes. But with their primly efficient format and their teeny industrial illustrations, they were too much like something you'd use in home-economics classes. Here, on the other hand, was a book that began:

with respect and appreciation
to all my teachers
past, present and future:
gods, men, and demons;
beings, animate and inanimate,
living and dead, alive and dying.
Rock and water
wind and tree
bread dough rising
Vastly all
are patient with me.''

The book was illustrated with drawings [by Suzuki student Frances Thompson - right?] of laughing Buddhas, cats and sandals. It told you not to become intimidated by bread dough, and that getting angry at yeast's failings ''does not help.''

The book was a perfect fit for the times (one fan wrote that learning to make his own bread had liberated him from corporate America) and an ongoing addition to Tassajara's operating budget.

Which was why it was written in the first place. ''I was so grateful,'' Brown says now, ''for the opportunities I had to practice Zen at Tassajara,'' where he studied with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. ''Suzuki Roshi was not a particularly demonstrative person, but I know that he loved me as much as anybody ever has -- and just for who I was, not for being a great cook. I wanted to do something to repay my tremendous feeling of gratitude, and I thought maybe a book about making bread would earn some money for the Zen center and be a nice thing to do for people.''

There was a reason for such gratitude. When Brown was 3, his mother died. Three days later, Brown and his older brother, Dwite, were placed in an orphanage in San Anselmo, Calif., by their grief-stricken father. It was the only way he could continue to regularly see his sons, who otherwise would have had to live with relatives in South Dakota. Edward Brown was the youngest child who had ever lived there. ''My father told me that when I first got to the orphanage, I just sat on a rocking chair on the porch all day long,'' he says. ''I wouldn't talk or play with the other kids. Now I look at that and I think, Wow, my first meditation.'' Four years later, Brown's father remarried, and the boys were able to return home. ''Still, I do have the feeling sometimes that I've spent a good deal of my life figuring out how to be my own mother. I think my cooking and baking can be seen in that light.''

A happier inspiration came a few years later, when Brown and his brother visited their aunt in Washington, D.C., and she made them the first homemade bread they'd ever tasted. ''The house smelled so amazing when we'd get back from sightseeing -- so friendly and appetizing. Even at that age, I thought: What's happened in our culture? Why aren't we eating bread like this? What's gone wrong here? I basically decided, I'm going to do this. I'm going to share this with people. There's no reason we shouldn't have something this delicious in our lives.'' (Later Dwite would say, ''What I remember about that trip is the Smithfield ham, but it didn't change my life.'')

In the summer of 1967 [1966-DC], Brown took a job as a dishwasher at Tassajara. ''I asked the cooks right away if they could teach me to make bread, and they said, 'Well, of course.' It meant less work for them. For me, it was like love. I started making the bread all the time.'' Later that summer, when one of the cooks quit, Tassajara's owners invited Brown to be a cook. Gradually he began asking the other people in the kitchen to write down their recipes, and things grew from there.

The bread book's first printing sold out immediately, and it continued to sell so well that it was printed in two subsequent editions, slightly revised, with additional recipes for things like desserts and flavored butter. ''In 1985, I realized, to my horror, that I'd written the whole book in Suzuki Roshi English, leaving out the articles and pronouns,'' Brown says. ''I decided to put them back in.''

''Tassajara Cooking,'' the book's sequel, came out in 1973, two years after Suzuki Roshi died, ''and we had learned how to speak English again.'' The Tassajara cookbooks were followed by ''The Greens Cookbook,'' written with Deborah Madison, and the tragically out-of-print ''Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings.'' Brown also edited a collection of Suzuki Roshi's lectures, called ''Not Always So.'' [Also there was Tassajara Recipes - DC]

Asked what he thinks about bread machines, Brown pauses. ''I try to be tolerant,'' he says after another pause. ''I've had some pretty decent bread from bread machines. But I'm convinced that working with your hands is fundamentally nourishing. As the Shakers said, work is a gift to the person doing the work. Why turn it down? When you knead bread, you're kneading all the channels and acupuncture points in your hands. Whether or not you call that a spiritual benefit or just a physiological one, doing something with your hands is just incredibly invigorating to your whole body.''

After Tassajara, Brown worked at San Francisco's Greens Restaurant in virtually every capacity, from busboy to wine buyer to manager. He mainly teaches now: occasional vegetarian-cooking classes, frequent meditation and yoga workshops. He is still asking, ''What's gone wrong here?'' But being an idealist is harder in these pinched days. Apart from his distress over the nation's politics, he worries that America has lost its most fundamental independence. ''When I was growing up,'' he says, ''nobody could show me how to bake bread -- and it's only gotten worse. It seems such a shame that as a culture we don't teach our children about the basic things in life -- bread making, gardening, sewing -- and the value of work. At some point, all these things got to be beneath our dignity. If you can't work with your hands, you lose the richness of your life and the sense of being productive.''

He continues: ''In my book, I wanted in a small way to share the fact that you could actually learn skills in your life that would help you become able to take care of yourself. It's so simple. It's such a clear vision. People have the capacity to cook and garden and farm, and we don't use it. It's very sad to me that it's come to this.''

But he keeps baking. And he rarely ends a conversation with Goodbye. Instead, he says, ''Blessings.''

Tassajara's Flaky Biscuits

1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter or margarine
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk.

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Combine flours, baking powder and salt. Cut butter or margarine into dry ingredients with a pastry cutter or two knives, or rub gently between hands until pea-size pieces are formed.

2. Make a well in the center and add the eggs and milk. Beat the eggs and milk with a fork until smooth. Continue stirring with the fork, gradually incorporating flour until it is all moistened.

3. On a floured board, knead the dough just enough to bring it together. Roll the dough into a rectangle 1/2-inch thick. Fold in thirds. Turn the dough a quarter-turn and repeat, rolling and folding. Repeat once more. (The rolling and folding make a flakier biscuit.)

4. Roll out the dough again to a 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into rounds with a floured cutter or glass. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 450 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes, until the bottoms are lightly browned and the tops slightly golden. Do not overbake.

Yield: 12 to16 biscuits.

Note: for a variation, add 1/2 cup roasted sesame or sunflower seeds to the dry ingredients.

Ann Hodgman is the author of "One Bite Won't Kill You," a book of recipes for children.

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