The Story Behind The Book
As I drove up highway 101 in late July of 1990, I had no idea what the next couple of months would bring. I was on my way to a retreat center where Charlotte Selver would lead the 1990 Sensory Awareness Leaders group for six weeks. I would attend as a student and resident cook. There would be twenty six of us, and I was on my way early to inspect the kitchen.
I was used to cooking for large groups of people. I had owned a restaurant for ten years, and had just completed a year of Zen monastic practice in New York state where I was the head cook in charge of a huge, elegant kitchen. Isis Oasis was going to be a different experience.
On that summer day I pulled up in front of a life-sized, mock Egyptian temple, and realized I had made it to the "real" California we East coast natives had always heard about. The proprietress showed me around her personal zoo of exotic cats, and offered me tea in the temple's dining room. By now it was mid afternoon and the temperature had climbed to the high 80's. I wondered how hot it would be in a month - mid August.
When I saw the kitchen my heart sank. It was tiny with an electric stove that had only three working burners and a refrigerator big enough for a family of one. How would I cook here? Where were the pots and pans, the dishes, the knives, the cuisinart, the everyday equipment needed just to boil water? There was nothing. Not even counter space. By the time I hastily said my goodbys I was already figuring how I would tell Charlotte I couldn't do the job. It was a cook's nightmare!!
As soon I got home I called Charlotte in a panic. She said, "Calm down. We'll work it out. Let's go and see the place again together". This was not exactly what I wanted to hear, but sure enough three days later I was back on the road heading north to my doom, with Charlotte by my side.
Work it out we did, better than any of my expectations. I outfitted the kitchen with some of my pots and pans, Charlotte donated her colorful Mexican serving dishes, and her husband Charles Brooks lent us his razor sharp knives. We found a huge refrigerator down the road in the main kitchen which I filled with fresh vegetables. I stuffed the pantry with grains, beans, spices and herbs to last the whole six weeks.
By this time Charlotte was getting a little nervous. Students were coming from Europe and all over the United States. Where would everybody sleep? Would they be happy sharing a room with six others or sleeping in the fold-out bed next to the kitchen? Would it be too hot to work and other various concerns natural when twenty six people live and work together for a month and a half.
The students finally arrived. At once they accepted their cramped quarters without complaint. We divided up into cooking and dishwashing crews, cooked our first meal together, and went to class with Charlotte. We were off to a great start. As it turned out, the month and a half at that odd retreat center became an extraordinary experience for us all.
We shared a deep spirit of camaraderie. I caught of glimpse of it at our first meal. I was nervous, hoping that everyone would like the vegetarian cooking. "Oohs and ahhs" greeted the food, then all was quiet as we ate - the best sign for a cook. This appreciation never wavered through six weeks of lunch and dinner. It inspired our cooking and spilled over into our work with Charlotte in class.
But what was "class" and what was living everyday as it offered itself? For me, this distinction all but disappeared. In the morning, after two hours of class, three of us would go directly to the kitchen and prepare lunch. We were attuned to all the sounds and sights and smells of the lively kitchen and to each other, and yes, to the support of the ground underneath us. In the afternoon three of us would again prepare dinner, and after washing and cleaning up, would meet with Charlotte in the living room to continue our experimenting.
I had viewed myself and my job as having limits. I had thought it probable that after a month of cooking everyday, shopping, thinking of menus in ninety degree heat I would run out of steam and become exhausted. I envisioned myself (with something of a martyr attitude) wearing the old "haggard cook look". But it never happened. I anticipated hardship in cooking two meals a day for twenty six people, but it was never hard.
I gave myself wholeheartedly to what I was doing, and the boundaries that I usually experienced of myself disappeared. I clearly noticed the results in the kitchen. There was no sense of effort in my work, and the energy I needed was always available. Our meals were ready on time for every lunch and dinner without stress or hurry. I felt calm if the rice overcooked or too much salt was put in the soup. And much to my delight, the food seemed to taste more and more delicious as the days went by.
For months after leaving the study group I was filled with this experience. It's how I came to write A Taste of Heaven and Earth. When I told Charlotte I was thinking of writing a cookbook based on our study group, she immediately suggested I write about some of the ways I had discovered to become more present in the kitchen. I thought it a good idea, and tried my best. Writing wasn't easy, but as I continued I began to feel a direct connection with what Charlotte often calls the "it" that enlivens us, moves us, and speaks through us. Much to my surprise the book was nominated for a Julia Child Cookbook Award, and has received wonderful reviews from readers around the world.
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