Thursday, May 19, 2011
Tassajara tenzo (or head cook) Graham Ross, one of the five now-legendary monks who turned back mid-evacuation to plunge into the path of the Basin Complex fire in defense of the Mountain Zen Center property, did so for a surprising reason.
“I was a little disappointed when we evacuated,” he says. “When we returned, I got to eat the shortcake. Really, that’s why I came back.”
Ross is joking. But after three meals at his dining hall, which are included with stays during the summer visitor season, I find that sort of obsession understandable, even in a man of his spartan sensibilities. Tassajara’s sesame noodles – rich wheat tangles alive with subtle seasoning and hearty scallions, mushrooms and green beans – trump the best Asian chow in California. One of the diners at the family-style tables in the welcoming riverside dining rooms had fourths – and was still emailing about them days later. (“Yummmmmmmmm.”) Tender triangles of tofu, lavished with a soy-ginger-garlic-rice wine marinade, are good enough to give meat-eaters new food for thought. The spinach, the cauliflower, the steel-cut oatmeal with fresh fruit, the black-bean chili, the eggs with spinach and goat cheese each arrive understated but leave eaters oversatisfied. I didn’t get to try the pasta-bean soup, but Weekly Editor Mary Duan (see story, p. 18) did.
“Thick with a melange of pasta, beans and vegetables in a well-seasoned vegetable broth,” she says, “it rivaled any soup I ate in Tuscany.”
Then there’s the baked goods. The monks could’ve smothered the Basin Complex rager with their robes and not approached the legendary status of the monastery’s native grain sourdoughs, onion loaves and rustic breads. I saw one guest almost throw herself into the river when the lady before her in line bought the last loaf on a departing Sunday. If Big Sur’s Camoldi Hermitage can charge $16 for a tiny nut loaf, these guys deserve roughly four times that for a big round.
My affection for the food was involuntary, but also vaguely unnerving: Getting rapturously worked up over foodstuffs (or anything) in a working monastery doesn’t seem quite right.
Not so, says Ross.
“Go for it,” he laughs. “There’s no problem with being human and expressing yourself when you love something. Sesame noodle can have a powerful effect on people.”
But that advice doesn’t come without qualification.
“We have to take full responsibility for our actions,” he says, “so loving something has consequences, and hating something has consequences. It’s important to be aware of those consequences.”
The Zen subtext: love-hate is a false choice. The food just is. Besides – the consequences for a polenta bread obsession include not being able to think clearly about anything else, like how to best explore the beautiful trails and water holes surrounding Tassajara.
Another Ross laugh. “Yes,” he says.
~ ~ ~
As I watched and photographed the monks and students – listening to their buzzing pre-breakfast chant (“regard the pot as your own head; regard the rice as your own life”) – other consequences occurred. Lessons, new and revisited, found clearer form in the kitchen context.
The abstract concept of “doing one thing completely” – “It allows you to touch the absolute,” head monk Greg Fain said in his Saturday night “Dharma talk” – crystallized in carrots. Ross, you see, chops them differently than most.
“It’s really about studying one thing completely,” he told me later. “Tasting the carrot, feeling the carrot when the knife goes through it, the texture, the smell, exploring everything that goes into those activities that we take for granted.”
That practice – a meditation, really – can grow even more powerful at the table. Touching, smelling, tasting, studying, patiently and thoroughly, leads a fuller, richer experience. To approach eating with constant openness, curiosity and joy is to apply the “Beginner’s Mind” central to Zen teaching in any arena.
Ross recommends a simple and effective way to amplify that appreciation.
“One of the things that we do that oftentimes people don’t do at home is add a finishing touch or a garnish,” he says. The tofu gets a dusting of parsley, the cauliflower receives pretty orange slices specked with red pepper, the moist lemon almond torte is crowned with a perfect little five-pointed star of almonds. “It helps to create an overall sense of detail to the meal. When you’re hungry it seems like an extra step, but it’s something that just increases your enjoyment of the meal, without even tasting it.”
Detail shows the love. Here – and hopefully at home – you can taste it too. The ingredients are locally sourced, pulled from TMZC gardens when possible, and the care is, in a word, incredible.
“I’ve heard guests express how they can feel the effort that happens in the kitchen by virtue of the food they’ve been served,” Ross says. “In terms of the practice in the kitchen, we put out six meals a day, and we always have the opportunity to refine the practice.”
I, for one, am feeling the love. It leads me to think that even as the hot springs’ sulfur filled my nose, as their curative waters seized my skin, as the valley sky’s stars grabbed my eyes, and as the tanto’s teachings monopolized my imagination, come predawn meditation, it might’ve been the food that made it hardest to completely clear my mind.
TASSAJARA ZEN MOUNTAIN CENTER 39171 Tassajara Road, Carmel Valley • Summer season runs April 29-Sept. 11; 659-2229, www.sfzc.org/tassajara