FOOD & TRANSFORMATION
Posted 23-August: 2012
by Bill Scheffel
I. Goddess of the Hearth
The photograph above shows a bowl of uncooked red lentils. They are the main ingredient in a dal I make, the legacy of a part-time business I had in Boulder the 1990s, Cuisine of India Catering. Since shortly after my father died in August 2010, I've been living out of a suitcase. I have traveled in the United States and abroad and have visited many friends along the way. I've been living from the suitcase for twenty-three months and have given the dal recipe to several of my friends and shown them how to make it. (At this end of this journal I will share the recipe it to all of you, readers of this column.)
Since dal was the basis of all the Indian meals I prepared in my catering business, I experimented with many recipes, eventually modifying them into a single one that tasted best to me. I reduced the number of spices I used - limiting them to cumin, cayenne and turmeric - and I roasted the lentils in a few tablespoons of oil before I added water, which gave the dal a richer flavor, more nutty and complex. It must have been the repetition of this method, preparing and refining it again and again, that made the dish what it is: perhaps my best contribution to humanity. I don't want to boast, but some of my friends would agree. Let me say that I love red lentils more each time I make this dish. I don't just love the way they taste, I also love them as they are: red, uncooked, bought in bulk; cheap, easy to cook and as far as soil goes, nitrogen fixing.
I'm reading a book by Tom Cheetham, Green Man, Green Earth. Cheetham speaks of Hermes, who he says is our disease - "He eats on the run, at Quik-stops everywhere... there is no time for slow cooking, for digestion, for assimilation." Cheetham contrasts Hermes with Hestia, goddess of the hearth, and quotes James Hillman:
She was the glowing, warmth emitting hearth... The only actual service performed in her honor... appears to have been the family meal. Without her humans would have no feasts. She presides over the the famous progress of the raw to the cooked... She indicates no movement, does not leave her place. We must go to her. She is always seated on circular elements, just as the places where she is worshipped are circular. Hestia is represented as sitting on the omphalos, or navel of the city.
One of the first types of dralas Chögyam Trungpa spoke were the "dralas of the kitchen." If we let Hestia speak in general for these dralas, in whatever places and cultures they might be encountered, I would say invoking the spirits or goddesses of the kitchen occurs through the intersection of containment (the pots), fire, ingredients - and a constant paying attention. This concentration is nerve-wracking for some people, but one of the times I feel most naturally relaxed and embodied is when I cook. Maybe cooking is a reset, when I feel closer to them because the veil has thinned, when I feel closer to the myself-inclusive-of-them (because are we really just "one" person?).
There were a few weeks last February when it seemed they chose every ingredient of the evening meal; I simply looked into the refrigerator and myself-inclusive-of-them saw through my eyes and choose. It was the same when I went shopping - I had the sense, and followed it, that I could only buy certain items, or include new ones only rarely. Later, when it was time to cook, I'd remove the chosen ingredients from the refrigerator and simply look at them - and something "else" told me which ones to combine, and how much. Odd combinations that didn't make sense (pinto beans with pesto sauce) but tasted fresh and delicious. I began to photograph the ingredients of these recipes that could-never-be-duplicated. It wasn't just my cooking that was being refined or transformed, but I was, too.
I am most interested in questions like, What is the world asking of me today? Progress or regression, enjoyment or outright pain seem to rely on the answer. When I returned from Cambodia in 2005, for example, I found it painful to resume reading The New Yorker. I still has eight months of my subscription left, but I could no longer read articles simply because they interested me (instead I felt instructed to read an eight-hundred page history of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge). There began to be a lot of words I could no longer feed myself through my eyes. It seems like every time I go ahead and do something even as subtle or momentary as poking around on the Huffington Post website during the day for a little sardonic tidbit about Mitt Romney, I feel that pain. Those moments depress me. A friend (and teacher, as all my friends seems to be) gave me an instruction from the Hawaiian tradition, a phrase that can be repeated in any circumstance, to oneself or to anyone or anything: "I love you. I am sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you."
That phrase has become very alive and essential for me. The idea in using it is that it can be applied universally. One might do it for someone one is on the best of terms with, because we can always be more open, attentive, loving, we are always expressing some degree of contraction, force or indifference - and thus always in need of loving more and forgiving ourselves more. This is very good for me, not just because I am male, and men live more in judgement and unforgivingness than women (at least it seems me), but also because I've become suspect and ultimately tired of judgment: living in it, holding it, putting it out, believing it. For me, there is a miracle in reciting this phrase - I feel my whole emotional system or structure is changed, almost immediately. It is strangely compelling to recite it to inanimate objects - a plate, spoon or my cell-phone. One of the first places I applied the phrase was to my own body, and especially my heart.
Frogs for sale, Chinese produce and fish market, New York City.
Since I left Boulder in 2010, I've only been back for a few weeks, and when I have returned it is not possible to see everyone I would like to. I lived in Boulder for twenty years and the sense of loss of community and becoming out-of-touch with friends has been at times acute. This has forced me - a very "tribal" person - to embrace more aloneness. But at the same time a new dimension of relationship has opened up. When I do stay with my friends when I visit Boulder, or with friends I have in other places, I stay for two, three, five days at a time (sometimes much longer). The difficulty with friendship in a busy place like Boulder - and this is no doubt true almost everywhere - is that I would typically see my friends for lunch or dinner. We might spend an hour or at the most four or five hours together, then have to wait for the next time, maybe weeks or months. Living in the same city, we'd never think of moving in for a few days, but it is precisely though living together that entirely new dimensions of friendship have opened up for me. I feel these dimensions are not unlike cooking; they emerge from the vessel of time and space; eating several meals together, running into each other in the morning, sitting around silently in the same room. Having fewer or different social masks. Having more conversations-with-theme-continuity.
The unsurpassable guide is the precious sangha. This is a line from a Buddhist meal chant that I have done for many years. Just as the word dharma, although it means many things in a Buddhist sense, fundamentally means norm, as in "the way things are," the word sangha, also from Sanskrit, simply means community. Over the decades, my sense of sangha has gone from a more organized one to one that is more personal. Sangha means, as it has always meant, community; but now, since I am not "in" organizations the way I once was, the sense of community is much less "member of" or "participating in" but in general whoever I am with (such as the congregation of the Liberal Catholic Church I wrote about last week). Sangha certainly means anyone I am in relationship to. And in particularly it means the people I am consciously choosing to have in my life - or aspiring to have - people who are good, true friends and therefore guides.
Guides are people who reciprocate in manifesting truth - that would be a working definition that has just occurred to me. It is interesting that in the meal chant I spoke of above, community is referred to as a guide (the Buddha is called teacher and the dharma - as collected teachings - is called protector). I might have thought of teacher as guide. That is certainly true also. And for a long time teacher-as-guide has been my strongest aspiration and practice. I knew I needed a teacher and Chögyam Trungpa said as much from the very beginning, but he also said we need a teacher to tell us that we have to do it ourselves. One particular "it" I have been forced to do - from my teacher! - is rely on my own authority. To trust myself in increasing doses and through many changes in the my life and style of life. The latest step in doing this is to forgive myself.
In my travels, some of the occasions of staying with my friends has led to fallings out, a form of transformation painful and sometimes unavoidable. Sometimes it's like a session of cooking in which the ingredients were forced together unnaturally, or left too long to cook. A case of misunderstanding what the ingredients needed. A case where the food was burned but I/we still had to eat it. It is true: there are few more compelling and inescapable mirror that that of falling out. The guide of my mistakes that is always with me; demanding understanding and forgiveness in order to be transformed and become nourishing again. I love you; I am sorry; please forgive me; thank you.
I've known a man named Michael Rogers since I was nineteen years old - i.e., I've known Michael one year short of forty years. Our friendship has been continuos since we became roommates in Santa Cruz California in 1976. I used to listen to Michael practice classical guitar and swear at the instrument when he made mistakes. We took long walks on the beach and discussed Carlos Castaneda's books. He once helped me down from a very bad acid trip. It is a friendship that bookends my entire adult life and includes both of us becoming students of Chögyam Trungpa, an obvious route from discussing Don Juan's teaching on warrorship and impeccability, though not one we could have possibly foreseen.
Last week, Michael came to visit me for three days here in Washington DC, three times zones from where he lives in Santa Cruz. On our first day we took in sites and experiences on The Mall; the Hirshhorn, the National Air and Space Museum, the grassy plazas. But we ate our dinners at home and on the second day spent a long time practicing together, sharing forms of physical body disciplines and meditation that we each do (forms that stream back to Choygam Trungpa, and even those times on the beach before that). The sharing we did became for me an "empowerment," a form of learning that earlier I might have thought could only come from attending the teachings of a teacher, master or expert. It became an expression of what I find in such abundance - but so easily still do not drink fully from - that each day offers the most accurate teachings, and especially when shared between friends-on-the-way. That each human life contains so much wisdom and insight that can be offered to another, that can be drank from.
Michael taught me a form of tonglen (a compassion practice visualized with the in and out breath) he developed - I should say "occurred to him." It's not possible to fully capture Michael's feeling for the practice or its details here in words, but it is essentially to take in the entire universe (and all the other universes) without "filter" - i.e., without setting any conditions on what we might or might not allow in, or encounter in life. I've known Michael for almost forty years, as I've mentioned. The spirit of this was just like him, back on the beach in Santa Cruz; it was his existential orientation, so to speak; accepting the whole cosmos or universe. Over the years, through Michael's histrionics and our sarcastic exchanges we would joke about this, his schtick. As I practiced Michael's tonglen with him last weekend what he said came powerfully from his heart and sincerety, and the phase that has been so alive for me merged into his tonglen and became even more penetrating: I love you; I am sorry; please forgive me; thank you.
Michael with Mondrian.
Bill's Dal Recipe
2.5 cups red lentils
1 lg. yellow onion
1 tbs. whole cumin seed
1.75 tsp. ground turmeric
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1.5 tsp honey or sugar
2-3 tbs. tinely grated fresh ginger
6 cups water, warmed and added throughout as needed
Liberal amounts of grapeseed or safflower oil
In a separate pot warm the water to hot, but not boiling. In a large pot with cover, or Dutch oven, Fry the lentils in several tablespoons of hot oil, stirring constantly until about one third of the lentils have turned from bright orange to golden brown. Then add water to cover them. Stir gently and then occasionally – if you stir too hard you will break the lentils apart and the mass will become pasty and difficult to cook thoroughly.
Sautee one 1 lg. onion
By the time the onion is translucent and sweet it can usually be added to the dal, pour on top. Do not stir, but continue to add water as needed.
Fry the cumin in oil; be careful not to burn, add cayenne for a few moments, then immediately pour on top of onions.
Add the turmeric to the pot.
Unless the red lentil used are large in size, the dal should be cooked by now - taste, of course, to make sure. If cooked, stir thoroughly turn off the heat and immediately add 2-3 tbs. ginger (about the size of ones thumb) grated through fine grater. Then add honey or sugar and the salt.
Stir thoroughly. The dal is finished and ready to serve (it tastes even better the next day). Bon appetit!