Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-23


It seems curious to me now that I went down to LA the few times I did on these shopping and research trips. That wasn’t repeated or necessary after that. But there was just so little happening in the organic and natural food field. Fred Rohé’s small yet prototypical New Age Natural Foods in the Sunset section of San Francisco was the best or maybe the only such store. He was a lot of help in terms of how to get good food. Mainly he said to buy local, grow as much as you’re able, and use as few packages and cans as you can. He suggested Koda Brothers organic brown rice in Dos Palos. And he mentioned a few places down south. One was Organicville in LA. In the spring of 1966 I went there. Sought advice from the owner. He had a lot to say, mainly about how the health food world was full of crooks and junk. From the 2nd story deck outside his office overlooking the store below, with a sweeping gesture he made disparaging comments about what people were buying. "It's 90% crap down there - supplements, vitamins, packaged snake oil." His large store had little more produce than Rohe’s small one. I told him I'd been to Hain, the company that made "cold pressed" oils that health food stores were buying. Mr. Organicville said, "Cold pressed doesn't men what people think. It still gets up to 120." I told him the stocky man I met in the office there smoked a cigar and wouldn't let me look around. The Organicville owner said that's because he didn't want me to see the pigs they were slaughtering in back to make their margarine. I laughed. "Actually," he said, "that would be better than the hydrogenated oils they use and that all margarines use. Better to eat butter."

I couldn't convince anyone at Tassajara that there was a problem with hydrogenated oils and I didn't really know for sure myself. We were torn between wanting to make healthy food choices and not wanting to succumb to food fanaticism which some of us were plagued by. We did not have a high fat of any kind diet so we kept using margarine with bread, Hain margarine which we thought must be at least a little healthier because it was just partially hydrogenated.  But a lot of us just used the muso and we didn't eat that much bread outside of the guest season. Mr. Finally margarine did get the boot from the Tassajara kitchen and the Food and Drug Administration came down heavy on partially hydrogenated oil which by then was called trans fat.


Another clash over synthetics came about due to the housefly situation. We had lots of flies in the first few years. There was much more animal food then including meat and fish and some of it ended up in the compost. There was chicken and horse manure for the gardens. It took time for us to learn not to breed them through carelessness. Compost and manure had to be well-covered with dirt or tarps or screened in. I ordered twenty fly traps, quart jars with tops that allowed flies to enter but not leave. I'd put something like chicken scraps in them and set them out near the garden and compost and around but not near where people would be because they were gross looking and smelling. In five or so days they'd be full of dead flies and I'd bury them. Really disgusting work.

On the brighter side of fly control was a method we used to rid the dining room of flies, namely - fly herding. I don't remember what bodhisattva turned us on to this but it became a standard pre-meal ritual in fly season which pretty much coincided with guest season. We'd open the windows and doors facing the courtyard, get a row of students and guests each issued a clean dish towel on the other side of the room. The towels would be held out gripped firmly in the top corners and on command we would snap them up quick then down hard so that they made a sharp popping noise propelling forward waves of air and sound. We'd march forward working our way around the tables and chairs and successfully drive most the varmints out. We'd repeat once or twice, close up, and ring the first railroad bell giving us fifteen minutes to get the food on the tables.

One day I walked into the kitchen and there were a bunch of yellow strips hanging up. They'd been using fly strips but these weren't sticky strips that trapped them, they were hard rectangular and plastic. I asked what they were and learned they were Shell Fly Strips. It wasn't long before almost all the flies in the kitchen had died. I found that alarming and said they should come immediately. Why? Because they created an environment that's lethal to something as big as a fly. You want to work in an environment like that? What's it gonna do to you - and the food? The answer I got from the person in charge that day was that if the Shell company put them out then they must be okay. We can trust them. If I'd had any hair I'd have started pulling it out. I ranted about it in the kitchen. I ranted about it to staff. No one wanted to take sides. It was new. Then Sterling came to visit. I took him in the kitchen. "Oh, them," he said. He identified the active ingredient as dichloros and said it was the same as what was used in purple strips earlier in the century. Called it a neurotoxin. Said it was very popular and  was blamed for an increase in leukemia. He explained how it mimics just what cancer does or something like that. I couldn't follow it. Said it would take years to determine just how dangerous they were but he wouldn't hang out near them. I went around quoting him. One morning a day or two later they were gone and only who did it knew who it was and where those yellow strips went. In 1971, five years after they'd come out, the federal government had the Shell company put a warning on them not to use them in hospitals, nurseries, kitchens, or restaurants. Then the EPA reported they brought a high cancer risk. Shell turned to Mexico and other foreign countries where their strips became popular and included suggestions to use them in kitchens, bedrooms and above baby cribs.

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