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Edward Espe Brown

Excerpts from Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings: Recipes and Reflections

Stories of Ed's life and practice at Tassajara and with his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki

[As I remember it, "Potato Fiascos" was going to be part of the name of the book as Ed envisioned it - something like "Tomato Blessings, Potato Fiascos," but the publisher didn't like the idea of such a negative image in the title. Maybe it wouldn't be out of print if Ed had had his way. - DC]




When I was the head cook at the Tassajara Zen community in the late 60's we ate a lot of brown rice. About a third of the residents were followers of 'Zen' Macrobiotics, who believed that short-grained brown rice was the perfect food. Chewing each mouthful of rice fifty to one hundred times was considered a meditation in and of itself.

While macrobiotics actually has nothing to do with Zen, and while I was not an adherent of this diet, I was obliged to cater to those who did, as they were loud and impassioned about eating the correct foods. They used to say that if one followed the proper diet, then one would feel peaceful and happy, and apparently this was true, because when they didn't have their proper food, they were outraged. Eventually our eating habits broadened, but meanwhile we lived under the tyranny of this diet plan. Twice during the brown rice era I tried cooking potatoes, and both times were failures. What did I know about cooking potatoes?

Once for the last dinner of a sesshin, our week of intensive meditation, I thought I would cook something 'special,' namely potatoes. After three months of brown rice, the thought of potatoes was pretty exciting. I could imagine just how delicious those baked potatoes would be, especially with some butter and sour cream. Nothing to it right? You just put them into the oven and bake. Simple.

I wanted very much to delight everyone, everyone who had been diligently practicing meditation, to treat everyone to what in the eyes of our macrobiotic contingent was a forbidden fruit. "Deadly nightshade family," they would say, as if that explained why potatoes were unacceptable. Also I had heard that our teacher Suzuki Roshi loved potatoes. Unfortunately the great feast turned into the great fiasco.

We filled the ovens with potatoes. I think we'd washed them and rubbed butter on them. I was thrilled. The potatoes were baking, and I thought that one and a half or two hours was plenty of time, but I found out it wasn't. Twenty minutes or so before meal time, we opened the ovens to check and realized the potatoes were not getting baked. My spirits dropped. We turned the ovens up full blast, but it was too little too late.

Under everyday circumstances one simply apologizes and delays the meal. In the restaurant business one might offer complimentary wine, but in the Zen tradition, when the bell rings, the food is served. Period. Meals are never late. No excuses, no delays. Certainly for the meditators it is quite reassuring. When the time comes for dinner, dinner comes. The cooks, especially the head cook, take on all the pressure and anxiety of making sure the food is ready. You do your best under the circumstances.

I have since discovered that in certain other spiritual traditions when the food is ready, the bell is rung. This way the anxiety is shared. "So the food's not ready. That's not a problem for you, is it? You'll hear the bell when it's ready." But this was Zen.

The potatoes never got baked. I had neglected to take into account how much an oven cools off when a large quantity of food is added. It can take an hour just to get the food up to oven temperature let along cook it. Also I have since learned that ovens heated with propane don't get as hot as those with natural gas or electric. I kept thinking that maybe the potatoes wouldn't be that bad, but they were.

After we finished cooking, at the last minute we would put on clean aprons and go to the meditation hall to serve the meal. Sweaty, frazzled, and fried from cooking, we would try to calm down, to settle and collect ourselves in the few moments before we would be entering the meditation space.

During serve-up the anticipation built up. Glorious baked potatoes. Eager eyes and noses prompted eager bowls to receive generous helpings of potatoes. With serve-up complete dining commenced. For our meals in the meditation hall we use a set of eating bowls which comes with a spoon and chopsticks, and from the back of the meditation hall I watched with fascination and dread as Suzuki Roshi's spoon bounced off his potato.

The man was intrepid though, and he had done plenty of stone work in his time, so he proceeded to make a row of holes with his chopstick, and then chisel off a piece of potato using the end of his spoon. He did what he could to eat his potato.

The comic scene continued to unfold, and I was devastated, yet I had to carry on. I don't recall what happened to all those hunks of potato; if they were eaten, collected, or disposed of with the wash water. We had pots to wash and the kitchen to clean, before I could fall apart. But I didn't fall apart all that much, because I knew that I had made a good effort.

Sometime later I apologized to my teacher Suzuki Roshi, who shrugged. He always made me feel good about myself. Potatoes might mock my effort, but he knew my heart.

The next sesshin I decided to try again. This time I planned to serve mashed potatoes, and get them cooked well ahead of time. Only when we were putting the potatoes into the wooden rice buckets for serve-up did I begin to sense that a different kind of disaster was in store. The buckets just weren't very full. Once again I had made a miscalculation. We didn't have nearly enough. Potatoes, it turns out, are like eggs. When they are mashed they don't look like much. People who will eat only 1 or 2 eggs fried, poached, or hard-boiled, will happily indulge in a three-egg omelette and if the eggs are scrambled some people will eat four or five. A big potato doesn't look like much when it is mashed.

The meditation hall was buzzing. Those being served first insisted on having their bowls heaping full of potatoes. The servers were trying to conserve their supply of potato, and in silence would anxiously glance down the row at all the people who remained to be served, attempting to indicate their dilemma to the early recipients, but it didn't work. Those at the ends of the rows got little spoonfuls.

The hall swarmed with emotion: bitterness, greed, joy, passion, resentment --the potatoes wreaked havoc. I think we heated up some leftover brown rice for seconds. The damage had been done. When it comes to food, people want a full bowl, by golly, regardless of how little that leaves for others a few steps away.

Another low point to add to the highlights of my cooking career.

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