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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
Finding Out That Food Is Precious
Food is precious. We don't always remember until not much is left. Then it is obvious. Food is an everyday matter, until it disappears. Then we know it's terribly important. The simplest dishes can be divine. The fact that they are even there is providential.
The winter of 1969 at Tassajara we found this out. We hadn't stocked up as well as we might have with grains, beans, seeds, nuts, dried fruits, and canned goods, so when the rains came we were ill-prepared. And the rains did indeed come - torrentially. Tassajara Creek, which is placid in the summertime, swelled so that it roared through the canyon.
At the baths the stream rose a good ten feet or more and threatened to flood into the bathhouse. Perhaps that was the year the bridge to the baths was swept away, and someone climbed a tree that arched across the creek and dropped down to -the baths. (We later installed a rope bridge.) It's all rather fun and exciting, grand and dramatic, as long as one is dry and has enough to eat. When one starts going hungry, then the constant, pulsating, throbbing surge of water is no longer thrilling, but takes on ominous qualities. What are we up against?
News came back that the fourteen-mile dirt road to town was no longer passable. About two miles up the road from Tassajara a huge mud slide had deposited a rock the size of a small cabin on the road, and nearby runoff had washed out a tremendous gully about six feet deep directly across the road. Not that we were accustomed to going out to the movies anyway, but we did depend on the road for food supplies. Further up the ridge, the road was impassable with snow and fallen trees.
We became foragers. Four people went out each day to pick the wild miner's lettuce and curly dock, which were plentiful because of the precipitation. At lunch, after the wheat flour for bread was gone, I began to serve white rice watered down to make a kind of gruel or congee. With it we would have a soup made with what we could find - perhaps a few beans or yams - and a miner's lettuce salad. Dinner would be brown rice with some steamed curly dock.
Once or twice we managed to get food in. After the county road crew had cleared the snow and fallen trees, a truck would come as far as it could, and we would drive up the road as far as we could, and then "ferry" food by hand or wheelbarrow over and around the various obstacles. Then the road became impassable again.
The food staples were stored in a room overlooking the creek, and sometimes I would look from one to the other: A few meager bags and tins of food staples, a magnificent surging of water. "This," I would think, "these few bags, are all there is. We could actually run out of food." Would we have to abandon Tassajara and hike out? We did have a large sack of whole-wheat berries left over from our failed efforts to grind our own flour, so I began cooking them and adding them to the rice gruel at lunch. With spring we began adding lavender-colored lupine blossoms to our miner's lettuce salad and sprouting some alfalfa seeds that we had discovered.
When the road remained impassable, we arranged for a helicopter to deliver food to Church Creek Ranch, which was about a three-hour hike, eight miles away. We trekked over and then back, our packs laden with groceries, some of which we wouldn't have ordered, but ate anyway: jiffy peanut butter, Mary Ellen jam, Wonder bread. We had these fantastic giant gems called oranges. We had cauliflower and broccoli, cheese and nuts, onions and garlic; we feasted.
Not so long after that the road crew, which had been waiting for dry weather to stabilize the hillside, came in and cleared the road, dynamiting the giant boulder that had blocked the way. We'd survived an unusual winter.
Later that spring the toilet in the dormitory backed up, and Reb, our plumber (who later became one of our abbots), was asked to investigate. Opening up the drain line, he discovered that it was blocked with undigested intact whole-wheat berries. Live and learn. How clever of the ancients to grind the wheat and make it into bread and pasta. How less than clever of modern man to use it to clog plumbing.
We ate simply. We may have lost weight, but we got by. Looking back now I can't remember any complaints. Complaints often come with affluence when the choices being made are not the ones that you would make. During a time of lack, the fact that there is food is enough. Complaints can also come with comparison, when some group of people has more or better than you do. When everybody is in it together, we weather it together - no complaints. May we and all beings enjoy the blessing of this food we share.
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