Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I became a vegetarian in September 1971 after meeting a man wearing a white robe during orientation week at Cornell University. I saw this saintlike figure reposing on a hill, staring at a tree. Curious, I approached; he told me his name was Peter and begged me to sit. Soon he was explaining the Essene Gospel of Peace.
In 1947 Bedouin shepherds in Israel wandered into a cave above the Dead Sea, discovering ancient clay pots with scrolls inside. These were the Essene Gospels, better known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Written by desert mystics, the scrolls dated from the second century BCE to the first century CE. Starting in the fifties, English translations of the Gospels appeared, and the Essene philosophy, forgotten for millennia, was revived.
Peter did not eat cooked food, because “fire is the instrument of the Devil.” He owned almost no possessions and lived a life of prayer. I still remember an aphorism he wrote in my spiral notebook: “In order for a seed to grow, it must first burst its shell of limitations.”
I had been looking for an excuse to become a vegetarian, and Peter offered me one. While everyone around me was busy commencing an academic Ivy League career, I was modeling my diet after spiritual obsessives from the year 6. In one day I went from typical American cuisine — roast beef, canned green beans, frozen corn — to nothing but raw foods.
A food co-op was starting in my dorm, so I joined. Now I could order soybeans, which I’d soak and eat uncooked. The beans were tasty but caused extreme flatulence. My poor roommate, Roger, who belonged to the Air Force ROTC and dreamed of flying fighter planes, quietly suffered with an Essene roommate who farted endlessly.
The last time I saw Peter was at an Aretha Franklin concert. After that, he disappeared — I believe to Hawaii. In his absence my discipline wavered. Finally I was conquered by a loaf of Italian bread from a bakery in Manhattan while home on winter break. Since then I’ve been a non-Essene vegetarian.
When my grandfather first learned that I had forsworn meat, he sent me a clipping from Reader’s Digest warning about the dangers of vegetarianism. A woman following a macrobiotic diet had collapsed in a supermarket in California, the article recounted. I was fearful, but I desperately hoped to reach Enlightenment, and a meatless diet seemed the first step. I guess my days are numbered, I thought.
Evidence is mounting, slowly but decidedly, that I am a great vegetarian cook. The first testimony came from my friend Eddie, a Culinary Institute of America graduate with severe standards. Meals that delight me are worthless to him. Once, I took him to my favorite Indian restaurant in Pine Hill, New York. “What do you think?” I asked anxiously. “A little greasy,” Eddie observed.
Last week I served Eddie one of my personal inventions, “Tamillsunye.” The name is an abbreviation of its main ingredients. Here is the recipe:
½ cup cooked millet
1 Tbsp tahini
1 Tbsp roasted sunflower seeds
1 tsp nutritional yeast
salt to taste
Mix together thoroughly.
Eddie cautiously sampled a mouthful, then smiled. “This is good,” he admitted.
Soon after I became a vegetarian, I joined the voluntary-simplicity movement. The goal was to live a life of nearly zero shopping. (This movement was so short-lived that no term ever evolved for its adherents: “Simpletarians”? “Voluntary simpletons”?) Cooking traditional peasant foods such as lentils, rice, millet, and carrots was a key part of this “lifestyle” — to use the seventies word.
I still try to keep it simple, both as a poet and a cook. Here is a typical poem of mine:
the Maypole, I pulled
a calf muscle.
And a typical recipe:
½ cup pinto beans
1 tsp fenugreek
Cook beans and fenugreek in water.
It’s so difficult to write about food. Words do not exist to describe the taste of a cantaloupe.
Last week my wife and I bought corn at the New Bridge Farmers Market in Bergenfield, New Jersey — which, in true Jersey fashion, is not a farmers’ market at all but a big-box store with piped-in disco music.
At home I boiled water while my wife shucked the corn. Then I cooked all four ears until they were bright yellow, extracting them from the pot in four minutes. I offered one with no salt or butter to the guy who was fixing our roof, and he responded with ecstasy, “It’s so sweet — like sugar!”
Snobby culinary experts don’t consider boiled corn to be true cuisine, but they’re wrong.
Cooking is only a partial art, like fashion. A lasagna can never be as profound as King Lear.
I love the act of stirring with a wooden spoon. Cooking with a metal utensil strikes me as a moral error, like the death penalty. I’m an intrusive cook, except when preparing grains, which mustn’t be bothered. I’d probably enjoy stirring a bowl of marbles.
With a few simple ingredients, anyone can eat well. I learned this in the seventies from Floating Eagle Feather, a Native American storyteller. He drove two friends and me to his apartment in New Orleans, then improvised a lunch from fried tomatoes, cayenne, and puffed wheat. New Orleans is where the blues, Christian hymns, and military marches gave birth to jazz. Floating Eagle Feather was a jazz chef.
I have violated my vegetarian principles only once. In 1976 I was having discomfort in my intestines, so I visited a chiropractor. He explained that my problem was a spastic ileocecal valve, and the best remedy was liver tablets. I was horrified, but for several days I took the nauseating pills. Then one night I returned home to discover my bedroom window open and the liver supplements gone. A thief had stolen them and nothing else! I took this as a sign from God, though I now suspect my friend Rabbit.
Cooking is like seduction. Pinto beans are hard and resistant until they’re melted by the heat of passion.
I am a lover of all things sesame: Chinese sesame noodles, tahini sauce on falafel, gomasio (a macrobiotic garnish of toasted sesame seeds and sea salt). I eat tahini almost every day: mixed into buckwheat, as a salad dressing, or slathered on bread with butter.
When I was a young hippie, natural-foods stores sold sesame butter, a rich, earthy paste of unhulled sesame seeds whose disappearance I mourn.
For many years I’ve had a fantasy of launching an all-sesame restaurant. I even have the perfect name: Open Sesame.
In his book Folk Medicine, DeForest Clinton Jarvis claims that everyone should eat his or her own ancestral foods. If you are Italian American, pasta e fagioli will be healthiest for you. A Scotsman, on the other hand, should consume oats and mutton. I am half Jewish, and in 1987 I arrived by bus in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on a Friday night and found a synagogue. There I met an elderly woman named Sonya, who invited me to sleep at her house. Sonya was a vegetarian and the next day prepared a hearty vegetable soup. Eating this soup, I felt that my tongue had encountered these chunks of potatoes and barley for centuries. Rainbows appeared above my head. Jarvis was right!
Many cooking implements are potentially murderous: knives, forks, graters — not to mention fire itself. A chef is a warrior going into battle against cauliflower and trout.
The Europeans recognize this truth and have wisely replaced war with fine cuisine.
The way one might use the word porcine in a poem, one adds rosemary to a stew.
One should always cook too much, rather than too little. We own refrigerators for preserving leftovers, but more pasta primavera cannot be conjured from thin air.
One pleasure of inventing recipes is coming up with names for them. Today, to reward myself at the end of a fast, I made Coconut Wish-Fulfillment Candy:
1 oz natural peanut butter
2 tsp shredded, unsweetened coconut
2 tsp buckwheat honey
Stir the ingredients together with a spoon.
I cook most of the meals for my family, but mass-produced foods are fun to eat too. When my daughter was young, we’d buy McDonald’s french fries at rest stops on the New York State Thruway. They tasted great! The only problem with such foods is that you can’t digest them, and they destroy your health.
The question “Why do unhealthy foods taste good?” is a metaphysical conundrum, like “Why are all handsome guys assholes?”
I was short on time today, so instead of cooking my millet normally, I brought it to a vigorous boil, then turned it off while performing my afternoon meditation. Later I picked up the lid. Not only was the millet done, but the kernels were soft and buoyant.
I forget that millet wants to cook. It’s not like brown rice, which must be dragged forcibly to perfection. If you turn off brown rice five minutes early, it will sit disconsolately in an inch of water.
Late at night in Brooklyn I met a woman walking her dog. Her name was Betty, and she mentioned that she’d just found free bagels outside a bagel shop a block away.
“Were there any whole-wheat?” I asked.
“Yeah!” she replied.
I thanked her and headed to the shop. Lying on the sidewalk was a black plastic bag full of perfectly good bagels. After a short inspection, I extracted four and walked to my parents’ house, where I ate one with sweet butter. It was superb — working-class truffles!
The best meal I ever had came from the trash. In 1987 I was staying with three guys in Milan, Italy, who served me pasta with homemade tomato sauce. Every ingredient had been scavenged from a dumpster. And the finest fruit salad I’ve ever tasted — at the Rainbow Gathering of 1978 — was foraged from the garbage. The tastes of the blueberries, pineapple, and strawberries ricocheted off one another. “Ripeness is all,” quoth Shakespeare, and ripeness is consistently found in trash cans.
Food is a visual art. One of my weaknesses as a cook is that everything I prepare looks like glop. My artist roommate, Anique, on the other hand, has the ability to create spectacular-looking dishes. Her coleslaw resembles a fourteen-thousand-dollar Persian carpet.
I am a vegetarian who dislikes animals. “Isn’t that beagle cute?” a friend might ask. No, it isn’t cute, I think. It’s simply an animal, with a limited mental capacity and thick body hair. I would rather stare at a crack in a wall or a doodle my aunt made than into the entreating eyes of a manipulative pet.
Though I don’t adore animals, I see no reason to murder them.
In the seventies vegetarian hippies would boil carrots and serve them in hot-dog buns with mustard or ketchup. They were called “carrot dogs,” and they tasted awful. Nevertheless, we all pretended to enjoy them. With the invention of modern veggie hot dogs, this barbaric practice finally ceased.
My wife bought cherries a few days ago, and last night I noticed they were ripe. She and I savored them in the evening, after my return from a minor-league baseball game. The cherries were deep red, the first couple so perfect they punched a hole in my tongue.
So much of cuisine involves waiting for the right moment. Choosing a fruit that is perfectly ripe and chilling it to the correct temperature is exactly like cooking a meal to perfection.
Today I sniffed three peaches that have been on the ripening shelf for four days. Each was ripe, yet each had a different peach smell. I’d never noticed before: there are numerous ways to smell like a peach.
In matters of food, the USA is like a foreign country to me. When I was hitchhiking through Texas as a young man, a roughneck named Dan took me to a restaurant in a dusty town. (“Roughneck” is an occupation, I learned — a laborer on an oil rig.) Dan offered to buy me anything on the menu, but there was nothing I could eat. Finally, in desperation, I asked the waitress if there was meat in the split-pea soup.
“Sure, plenty!” she replied.
Even today, when I visit a diner, I am stumped. I leaf through the nine-page menu only to order a baked potato. I suppose I could eat a grilled cheese sandwich, but I don’t consider white-bread-plus-American-cheese food. I consider it sculpture.
Once, when I was ten, my father stared into his bowl of cornflakes at breakfast and announced, “I wish there was a pill you could take instead of eating.”
My roommate David went raspberry picking today and brought my wife and me a container of fresh berries. I’ve had a lifelong horror of raspberries because my sister was allergic to them in her youth, but these were wild, manufactured by the Godhead. They didn’t taste like raspberries — just fresh berries without a name.
Lately I’ve been traveling and staying with friends, and each of them has had at least one bag of romaine-lettuce hearts in the refrigerator. What’s happening to all the outer leaves? Health-food books of the fifties were fond of declaring that American livestock eat better than we do. I suspect hogs in Indiana are munching on those mineral-rich romaine leaves.
Today I was about to sit down on the subway when I noticed a paper bag on the seat. “If you see something, say something” is the transit authority’s slogan about unattended parcels. Could this be a bomb left by a stealthy terrorist?
Timorously I opened the bag to discover two bottles, one marked “Red Lavender Tincture”; the other, “Asafetida Tincture.”
Maybe God is encouraging me to take these tinctures, I thought.
At home I searched the Web and learned that asafetida is used to treat male sexual disorders, promote virility, and prevent the ill effects of excessive sexual indulgence.
Today I made dal and poured in a teaspoon of the asafetida tincture. It gave the dish a warm, sad flavor.
While waiting for a plane at the San Francisco airport, I sat near an Indian guru and his disciples. The sage was speaking in Hindi, and I heard the name “Gandhi.”
“Are you talking about Gandhi?” I asked.
He smiled and explained: “I was saying that Gandhi would proclaim that he was living only on goats’ milk — but he didn’t mention that they were feeding almonds to the goats!”
The New York Observer says that the breakfast food whose popularity is most in decline is toast. As usual, I am swimming against the fashion current. More and more I eat toasted bread, although not for breakfast, because I don’t eat breakfast. The way glistening butter soaks into browned bread to me suggests inner wisdom. The words toast and Taoist are almost identical.
My wife bought a bar of lemon “pure and natural” glycerine soap. (“New and Improved!”) The bar was shrink-wrapped, and the plastic difficult to remove. I used my teeth, chewing off a bit of the soap in the process. It tasted almost like lemon candy. We have reached the point where soap is actually food.
As I get older, I consume better and better olives. I never expected to become an olive connoisseur, but since supermarkets began stocking numerous varieties in bulk, I’ve come to know olives as never before.
Once, while I was hitchhiking near Genoa, Italy, a driver pointed out the window and said, “That olive grove is two thousand years old.”
The trees had not grown very high in two millennia. They were small, convoluted, and secretive. Put an olive in your mouth, and you taste its ancientness.
My friend Marx comes over, and we share a snack of whole-wheat matzoh, sharp cheddar cheese, and mustard. “These represent the two ethnicities of my parents!” I announce. My mother is Pennsylvania Dutch, and one of the pleasures of her youth was cheese with mustard. My father was born an Orthodox Jew in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He eats matzoh even when it’s not Passover.
I’ve been visiting my parents more often in recent months. While staying with them, I cook for myself. Once, I made lima beans, which my father liked. Since then I’ve prepared this dish over and over, toying with the recipe to make it more palatable. My most recent version begins by sautéing carrots, celery, potatoes, and red bell peppers with ground white pepper and paprika. I add lima beans and barley (which I’ve soaked overnight), then boil the soup for about two and a half hours. I’m trying to re-create, through intuition, the soups my father ate as a boy in the twenties. I’m “channeling” a Jewish culture that no longer exists.
Animal-eaters occasionally ask me if my diet feels limited. Limited? With thousands of grains, nuts, legumes, berries, fruits, flowers, and seeds to choose from? Vegetarians often eat more varieties of food, because they appreciate esoteric produce that carnivores sneer at, such as hollow-crown parsnips.
I may be the last vegetarian in America. Nowadays everyone is either a vegan, an omnivore, or a “flexitarian” who eats “a little fish” or “only chicken — never beef or pork.”
Every vegan I know, in fact, occasionally weakens and gobbles cheese, while still wrapping him- or herself in the cloak of dietary virtue.
The way a sauce can redeem a meal is unique to the culinary arts. You can’t pour a liquid over an essay and make it suddenly successful.
Cuisine is also a theological issue. Humans have a dual nature: we are part beast, part angel. The angel in us must decide how to feed the beast. Will we treat her respectfully or give her merely the minimum she needs to survive? Is it worthwhile to spend two hours preparing a dish simply to gratify our senses?
My theology says: Treat the beast like an angel.
Now that I’m making progress as a cook, I notice that I lack seasonal variation. I don’t have a “summer menu.” I cook for an eternal winter.
The concept of the “celebrity chef” has arisen on reality TV — a sure sign that we’re maturing as a civilization. Bruised by the longest war in our history — in Afghanistan — we’re drawn to the pacifism of the kitchen. Isaiah wrote: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares.” I write: “And they shall beat their M-16s into Japanese sushi knives.”
My wife bought ripe bananas, but I was fasting, and she wasn’t in the mood for them. By the time we both remembered the fruits, they were mushy and odorous. Lying in bed, I developed a desperate recipe:
3 brown bananas
6 oz apple juice
1 fistful blueberries
My alchemy worked! The result was as sweet as a Hershey bar melting in the August sun.
As my friends become middle-aged, they often tell me: “Sparrow, you’re not going to believe this, but I now have your diet!” Their doctor told them their cholesterol was out of control and they must avoid meat, white sugar, and white flour.
In other words, for most of my life I’ve had the diet of an old man.
My father says vegetarians don’t live longer; it just seems longer.
Cooking is a type of worrying. While eggplant is sautéing in your wok, you must fear that it will burn, but also, conversely, that it won’t completely cook. It is an awesome responsibility. Yet if you accept it and don’t shirk, your dishes will be delightful. It’s only when you decide to simultaneously cook and answer e-mail that you are doomed.
Do I “believe in” vegetarianism? Not exactly. One reason so few vegetarians exist anymore is that many become deficient in vitamin B-12 or iron, so they ingest fish or meat once a week. Perhaps a meatless diet is “too perfect” for our world (though 500 million people in India seem content with it). Certainly I am attached to not eating meat, but this may be a vice, a type of “spiritual materialism.”
Nonetheless I continue, uncertainly, my quiet nonslaughter of cows.
A microwave? That’s living lightly on the earth? I honestly cannot tell if Richard Chapman is joking. Now I know how most people feel reading me.
In their argument over how best to cook corn on the cob — boiling versus microwaving — Sparrow [“My Life in Vegetables,” September 2013] and Richard Chapman [Correspondence, February 2014] are both missing the mark. Steam’s the way to go; uses a lot less water and ’waves.
Of all the surprises of my life, the fact that I have ignited a raging controversy about how to cook corn is one of the greatest.
In “My Life in Vegetables” [September 2013] Sparrow describes how his wife shucks corn while he brings to boil an adequate amount of water to accommodate four ears. Boil for four minutes, he says, and presto — you have ecstasy. “It’s so sweet — like sugar!”
Might I ask how long it took to bring that pot of water to a boil? Ten minutes? Did Sparrow use natural gas, propane, coal, electricity, or wood as an energy source?
Did he need additional time after the corn was placed in the boiling water for it to return to a boil? Wasn’t the water sucking much of the luscious taste and vitamins from those succulent kernels?
There is a better way to prepare corn: with a microwave.
Decrease your carbon footprint! Save water!