From Buddhism and Baking T0 Zen and The art of Daily HOme Maintenance.Meet the Baker: Edward Espe BrownTassajara… even the sound of the word is delicious. I knew that wherever this place was.. it was producing the best bread I ever tasted. Whenever you knew someone that was going to Tassajara, you made sure to ask them to please bring you back a loaf of THAT BREAD. It was dense but not gummy, it had weight but was not heavy, packed with molasses, buttermilk, cornmeal and millet and other flours you had never even heard of buckwheat, eikhorn and barley) rich but very healthy tasting…in other words a meal unto itself nothing short of perfectly nourishing to body mind and spirit coming from this sanctuary in the mountains called Tassajara: far from the madding crowd.
Tassajara is tucked away in the Los Padres National Forest southeast of Carmel by the Sea. It was called Tassajara Hot springs until 1966 when the Zen Center of San Francisco bought it and renamed it the Tassajara Zen mountain Monastery.
Tassajara was redwood cabins, Yurts, hot spring baths, stoned pathways curving around California wildflowers and rusted sculptures. It was sounds of birds, chimes, bells and gongs from dawn to dusk. There were Zen students with shaved heads, stern expressions, eyes seemingly always cast down to the ground, dressed in long purple robes following some sort of traditional Buddhist Monastic schedule. On my 1st day trip to Tassajara, I was still a Teenager. I knew I was coming to a place where I was supposed to relax and be quiet and find what everyone called “inner peace” but I was all too stimulated by the fantastic food, my first time glimpse of nude bodies of all shapes and sizes of all ages and the stunning natural beauty.
It was here in 1966 that 22 year old Edward Espe Brown found himself in the position of head cook/baker of the monastery. As he says in his ground breaking book: THE TASSAJARA BREAD BOOK:
” I was about as sure of my position as a leaf which falls into the winter creek. I lasted 3 summers and 2 winter until completely devoured, bones cast aside, I was finally exhausted of food. ”
What follows is my interview with the now 71 year old Edward Espe Brown who lives in Fairfax, California from April 2016.
HIGHLANDS BAKERY: when did you first taste good bread?
BROWN: I was 10 years old and was sent to my Aunts in Falls Church, Virginia. She made homemade bread. I had never tasted anything so good and when I came home I asked my mother if I could learn how to bake bread my mom said: “Yeast makes me nervous.” so I never learnt. .
HIGHLANDS BAKERY: HOW DID YOU FIND TASSAJARA?
BROWN: I was a student at Zen Center in San Franciscoo and a friend recommended I get a job at Tassajara. I started out as dishwasher then baker, then 1/2 way thru the summer, the cook quits and the owner Anna and Bob Beck asked me to be the cook.. Well I quickly learned I had a cooks temperament. It was the era or white packaged bread. A slice that could all be wadded up into a blob the size of a quarter. I just knew I wanted to learn how to bake good bread and so In the buddhist tradition, I did not want to waste anything so if we had some leftover cereal for breakfast I poured that into the dough and it turned out to add texture and moisture and poeple loved it.. Any kind of leftover gruel was delicious in bread. There were no recipes.. I had to learn to put numbers to something so gradually I stopped to write down the recipe for what I was doing. I think the Buddhist tradition says to See With your eyes, Smell with your nose and Taste with your tongue. It was very simple in the beginning.. Just make what I like.. I realized later that most people had gotten away from knowing what it is they liked! I think the Tassajara bread book was my way of saying Look its just food.. Don’t be scared of it but people get very emotional around food and making it come out a certain way. When I started teaching cooking classes, people asked me what am I supposed to be tasting?
In Buddhist tradition we are not supposed to beg…just accept what is given to us and use up whatever is on hand…but very soon the summer visitors/guests at Tassajara got more demanding and expected very high quality ingredients and great cooking skills. Then, all of a sudden we were getting the crowd with every possible food restriction they had to shout about.. The macrobiotics were the worst.. They could not even tolerate salt! How can I make soup without adding salt? and they demanded dessert with every meal… You see I thought when I was in the kitchen I could make something the way I like it and then Zen practice teaches you.. you must be ready for anything.. If you get angry.. just feel the anger.. get ready for it but do not scare any0ne out of the kitchen.. Well you can see how this is very challenging when you are working with a lot of cooks in the kitchen… I did learn not easily by any means to articulate what I needed in the kitchen without throwing any pots and pans at anybody… I suppose I am a bit of a guy that way also.. I hear from Robert Bly that woman have a superhighway for a brain and men just have a dirt track and it cannot veer off course easily.
HIGHLANDS BAKERY: WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WRITE THE TASSAJARA BREAD BOOK FOR THE FIRST TIME:
BROWN: IT was very clerical, pretty awful. I was used to not using any recipes and then all of a sudden I have pencils and paper all around me and run around with note pads and measuring spoons, and lots of note taking. When I was writing the first Greens Cookbook with Deborah Madison we would have these ridiculous discussions with the Publisher. We would write: “cook onions until translucent” and the published would ask: “well how long is that?” us: “until they are soft.” and he kept wanting us to give us a time.. we got so impatient we just said ” Cook onions unTIL they taste the way you like them… We really wanted people to just become aware of how each ingredient feels, tastes, looks and not have a recipe always have to be like the gospel. I realized people were afraid of cooking. The baking book was really meant to be a new kind of book.. more of an invitation to the reader to enjoy the process.
HIGHLANDS BAKERY: yES I LOVE THAT PHRASE YOU HAVE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE BAKING BOOK:
“BASICALLY ITS JUST YOU AND THE DOUGH RIPENING MATURING, BAKING AND BLOSSOMING TOGETHER” AND THEN MY FAVORITE EXPRESSION. YOU SAY “MIX THE DOUGH UNTIL EARLOBE CONSISTENCY.”
HIGHLANDS BAKERY: WHAT DOES YOUR LIFE CONSIST OF NOW?
BROWN: WELL part of the year I am in Switzerland, Austria and Germany giving workshops on cooking and meditation and How to Sharpen Knives. They are usually 5 day retreats. There are fully equipped kitchens and all very clean and spacious. I don’t have to lug around MY own equipment which is what I ended up having to do towards the end at Tassajara. The Tassajara in recent years got pretty bare and I was cooking on a 3 burner propane stove and I was bringing in my own pots and pans… very unwelcoming so I found Europe way more enlightened about the art of cooking. Here we have become so affluent..we are always just on the hunt for the next big thing, what is trendy in food.. what is quick and we eat on the run… What is sacred anymore? We have huge corporations covering our foods with pesticides to make more cheap unhealthy food available. I was even reading an article that morning breakfast food sale is down because young people were polled that they do not want to bother washing the bowl.
HIGHLANDS BAKERY: YES AND I HEARD A CONSUMER WATCH PROGRAM SAYING THAT THE FOOD MERCHANDISER MONSTERS ARE BANKING ON A NEW CONCEPT FOR THE STORES: CUT READY TO EAT SLICED APPLES PACKAGES IN SHRINK WRAP.
BROW people ask me if I write and I say :”but who reads anymore?” People want short quick recipes. I would rather write about people now anyway. I had to get over a lot of shame because I had to tell people I am not writing anymore and I also gave up wheat because I did feel like i was getting more bloated. I make a very easy whole wheat olive oil bread for guests and a light minestrone with a good Parmesan and people seem to really love that. Mostly I have a lot of chores that I do around the house; pay bills, xerox my checks, take care of yard the 2 apples and what is it about sweet peas where they get all netted up? I spend a lo of time rewiring and re hanging the stems that have jackknifed down and bend over and almost snap.. then there are always leaks and you have to be prepared to crawl under the sink and take out detergents and bleach and window cleaner and other junk so that you may be able to find the proper wrench to fix the leaky pipe. I am very thankful for the moving around part because I have always had trouble with the amount of sitting that goes into practice of meditation but I manage. I make a living and have a website called Peacefulseasangha which lists all of the coming events and lectures I will do so that is good.
Ed had to go… he was preparing for his upcoming trip to germany . he has left us all with one magnificent bread! As he says in the beginning of the baking book:
The truth is you are already a cook, noboyd teaches you anything about salads and dressings breads and entrées, for getting enlightened and perfecting the moment.
the unique flavor of Reality
appears in each breath, each bite,
each step, unbounded and undirected.
Each thing just as it is,
What do you make of it?