The Heretic in the Church of Food
I opened the restaurant India Joze in a ten-table cooperative antique store/deli space in 1972. By the time it closed twenty-five years later, forty tables larger,India Joze had become more than a restaurant. It was a community institution, one that former patrons, even a decade after they had last eaten there, seemed unable to forget Our then-unusual world spanning cuisines were profiled in the San Jose Mercury News and its magazine West. San Francisco magazine followed, as did The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. We were still being written up in the Christian Science Monitor 8 years after it closed . While I am no longer a restaurateur, I remain deeply involved with the local food community as a caterer and culinary arts instructor. In 2007having switched to catering, in 2006 I became the first chef to receive the prestigious Gail Rich Award,reserved for Santa Cruz artists. Certainly I appreciate the kudos, but at the same time, I have to wonder why the memory of my restaurant persists. What is it that people miss?
Here is my answer. A funny thing happened on the way to the fulfillment of infinite culinary choice and the unlimited expansion of connoisseurship: The point of dining got lost.
I'm not sure when it happened. But, looking back, I can recall when I first noticed it happening:
It was some time in the late 1980s. A table of four was trying to decide on the perfect, signature, hot beverage to conclude what all present agreed had been a fabulous meal. Someone proposed a pot of chai (this was long before Starbucks and Tazo arrived on the scene-I'd been serving chai since India Joze began). Suddenly the discussion devolved into a series of anxious questions and semi-irascible statements.
"Can you make it de-caf?"
Of course, I could, but....
"I like mine with extra-strong tea."
Well, maybe two pots, but...
"Would anyone mind if we had it with soymilk instead?"
Would that be the caffeinated or the de-caf?
"You don't use honey, do you? It's not vegan."
"Low fat, please"
"Is your milk hormone-free?"
"Is your sugar organic?"
"Is your tea fair-traded?"
All at once, the four companions (a word that means, literally, those who have shared bread) had turned into antagonists, agonists, and protagonists all at once, each having completely forgotten their common aim-the pursuit of a pleasure to be shared in the woozy afterglow of mutual satiation.
My own passionate certainties about food started twenty years earlier, in a time of both literal (I was a broke college student) and spiritual hunger. ). Disgusted with the mainstream American diet, I sought the bliss of transcendence through the cooking and consumption of unusual foods. Each esoteric recipe I prepared, every rare spice I used, any recondite kitchen trick I applied, put me in direct contact with the great known and unknown cooks of the ages. My food world-my whole world-became charged with meaning. As the Muslim cleric says, life's journey for the unbeliever travels a path across a narrow bridge suspended over a chasm, while the believer's route is a broad, level highway. Where the unbeliever sees a wild, dangerous landscape, monsters, and savage beasts, the believer sees a welcoming, beautiful garden full of good fruits, good vegetables, and domestic animals of all kinds, who derive their own life's meaning from service to humankind.
The believer's garden we created at India Joze was the starting place of many of the restaurant's most intense culinary experiences. We made our own ketchups, salsas, chutneys, curry pastes, jams, and pickles, because, like the act of praying, those acts had the power to transport us to a sacred world, one that changed the local landscape as it simultaneously and forever changed us. Looking to other cultures and their cuisines, we tasted religious rapture and almost remembered the taste of our mother's milk. We even had the cachet of being persecuted for our beliefs: Neighbors called the cops when we fried redolent, fermented shrimp paste for our Southeast Asian curries; and when I fed the homeless publicly, I was arrested.
I had found my calling. I was feeding the community locally-grown, natural, and ethnic foods at a time when those categories were unproblematic and seemed perfectly aligned with each other and with the Good. We had faith, actually larger than the proverbial size of a mustard seed (carefully fried, of course), and it moved mountains of customers to us-converts who, like us, believed that meaning could be created through mindful consumption, in the same way that Catholics believe in the spiritual benefits of consuming the consecrated Host.
Not that we consciously considered it a Food Faith. We were just putting the Satan of food-like substances behind us and choosing the health of our community. Like the nineteenth-century American food evangelists, we were disgusted by the profane-white flour, refined sugar, hamburgers. Our bliss (which Hindu authorities say is equal to Oneness and hence by extension to Wholeness ) was the accord of certain foods with our particular set of beliefs of magical efficacy or pollution: small is better, labor intensive is better, local is better, unusual is better, home-cooked is better, unprocessed is better, artificial was disgusting.
All things being equal, all types of religious cults whose members share a greater number of inconvenient practices seem to last longer in group solidarity. Our staff thrivedbitched and thrived I should say-- on all the obsessive and contradictory mitzvahs we took to avoid the disgusting shortcuts of normal restaurants.. It didn't matter that much of what we served was difficult or expensive to prepare. Our monkish devotion to the cause subsidized our low prices. In India Joze's heyday, my culinary acolytes and I were willing to work hard for far too little, because we were advancing a class-blind system of food good enough for anyone but cheap enough for everyonea brotherhood of food.
It was, by all accounts, an extraordinary moment. India Joze's patrons came to us with some wildly dissimilar food religions, and we were able to serve them all. This polytheistic culinary vision was such that on the same menu and under the same roof we could offer the most highly-branded and recognizable consumable on earthCoca-Colaright alongside our own Hibiscus Cooler, a honey-spice-lemon drink, found nowhere else , though the name was later stolen by a juice company and other restauranteurs. In retrospect, it amazes me how widespread our following remained.
When I think back on it, I most vividly recall how all of these differing food beliefs were made flesh, so to speak, in the dueling (dual) woks in the kitchen. In one wok, I could see, literally, the evidence of my time spent with the French intensive gardening guru, Alan Chadwick. It gave me street cred with local organic farmers, who came by with strange vegetables that no one recognized and engaged me in long conversations about their save-the-world causes. In the burner right next to that one, there was the transubstantiation of the favorite catch of the local fishing community, of very specifically northwestern Italian descent, who applauded my championing of calamari, seeing it as comradely vindication of their Old World, no-nonsense enthusiasms. (This devotion developed into another sort of cult following for our Calamari Festival, which for twenty years conjoined bliss and disgust in one highly charged food.) In other places on the stovetops and ovens were Vietnamese, Persian, Burmese, Turkish, and Brazilian preparationsimmigrant foods, even if the immigrants in question had not actually arrived here in large numbers yet. Cosmopolitans at the university sighed in longing for lands where these dishes were more, and less, than exotic transplants. Another faction, early apostles of Szechuan heat, saw me as the facilitator in their quest for chili highs. There was only one genuinely troubling political sticking point in those days. Explicit rejection of what we'll call here the colonialist enterprises in Southeast Asia meant an uneasy place on the menu for steaks.
Let's just say that I've always loved food fervor, and if some of the precepts solemnly propounded to me seemed deliriously nutty ("Durian fruit and alcohol is a deadly combination..." "Adding milk to tea is vulgar: you must always put the milk in the cup first..."), I enjoyed surfing on the bow wave of their certainties. The mushroom foragers and wine connoisseurs I met during my restaurant years led lives circumscribed by their searches for the rare and the precious, and their commitment to these values was so entrancing, that anything less than an answering zeal would have been boorish at best.
If forgetfulness is the last gift of the god Dionysus, then I was indeed blessed. For when, again and again, initiates of this or that food creed revealed to me their newly discovered secrets, I could honestly always marvel at them anew, never failing to find some facet reflected in the contradictory constituents of India Joze that would allow me to maintain fellowship with everyone. Drawing out and bearing witness to the truths embodied in the food choices of one's dinner companions has always made for excellent table talk. The same logic applies when I listen to a food writer expound on the idea that wasting one's time or stomach space on anything but the finest ice cream, tequila, heirloom tomatoes, et cetera, is pointless. While I can agree with that observation, and even could advance the sentiment in ways that the food writer may not have considered, I simultaneously chuckle to myself, aware that the argument falsely relegates the bulk of the world's population to the outer darkness, beyond the reach of aesthetics..
Inevitably, clashes between food religions did occur at the restaurant, but they weren't fatal. A balance could always be struck. For every indignant (But surely you know that you shouldn't be using [insert disgusting item][factory-farmed pork]!), there were a dozen exculpatory (At least you make a decent [insert blissful item][Born Again Pork Benedict].). Of course, that state of affairs couldn't last. The shining historical moment that made possible a restaurant like India Joze passed. A baby-boomer demographic had created the adventurous, inquisitive market that our restaurant once served. All that searching and questioning led in so many different directions, and to many new, conflicting food values. Now, the possibility of commonality of consumption fired by the passion and certainty of religious observance only seems possible to those many believers holding that their beliefs alone are uniquely reasonable and that everyone will eventually come around.
To avoid despair, it was helpful to remember that I, too, had been a believer exploring the world of food, following my compass, moving away from disgust toward bliss, secure in the certainty that I was avoiding error, finding truth. But then came my travels abroad, where I saw kitchen work being done with the dignity of ditches well dug. They had religion there, all right, but it wasn't centered on food. They had ample opportunity for sin, reflection, repentance, and redemption, without adding to it the idea of eating nothing that is not organic and hasn't been produced within a two-hundred-mile radius. Overseas I found very little sense of the moral one-upmanship that pervades food discussions here. (Granted, this situation may not last, either. Is it any accident that the rise of the Slow Food Movement in Italy has been attended by declining numbers at Mass?)
It was my foreign travels that showed me the true meaning of the phrase one man's meat [yes, and one woman's, too] is another's poison. Abroad was where I also came to the realization that, as a chef, my role in the community had changed. I had embarked on a food career partly because I wanted to provide opportunities for people to enjoy companionship, but increasingly my customers wanted from me only a safe house, a sanctuary, where they could gnaw on the bones of their orthodoxies. As my wouldn't-be chai drinkers illustrated so well, sacrifices (free-will offerings) for the sake of tolerance and communality had become indulgences. What is more, moneychangers had entered the food temple. Food Faith had spawned marketing opportunities. The sad result? Cheap enough for anyone meant not good enough for anyone. Higher prices were something that the elect were willing (indeed, were often the only ones able) to pay. The India Joze festivals that celebrated calamari, mushrooms, chickpeas, and all the rest-attended by representatives from all walks of life-had been replaced by atomized, niche events for consumers. Even water, our universal beverage-the first and still foremost guaranty of public health-had become a commodity, as billions of discarded plastic bottles of branded, commercially sanctified holy water began to fill the streams and rivers where public water once ran free.
The meaning of dining for me used to fit explicit religious categories: credo(reciting the faith,) sacrament (sharing the transcendent with believers,) avoiding/repenting sin, making a conscious break from profane society, proselytizing for the true faith of righteous eating.Hidden in the thicket of competing claims for the moral (disguised as "nutritive")standing of this or that foods was the actual taste on the tongue which makes it all worthwhile. Or not.
These days teaching and catering has me pondering hospitality and the "hospitality industry": how to bring more people to a table recognizable by a communal glow of shared curiosity and satiation -- an experience that does not deny an individual's food beliefs but honors them-- and transcends them.
I think that Taste points the way, in many directions. The same great range of flavors and textures and aromas are available to all believers and non-believers alike. This is obvious for Kosher or Organic devotees, but I would argue that even vegetarians and wine-abstainers can join in all the same taste sensations if they are willing to learn the transformations possible.
This is a huge subject, so I am only going touch on one simple tactic for sensory excellence: the rule of Change itself. We only taste changes in our mouths, which is why it is so difficult to taste our own mouths. Variety isto coin a clichéthe spice of life. Flavor pairings is too tepid a term, though wine can be a perfect contrast for many. Extreme flavor sports at Joze meant a profusion of relishes, chutneys, condiments, salsas, nam priks, sambals, and pickles at all times. These were diner-controlled changeseven a little to violent for somein flavor, aroma, and texture from whatever else was being eaten, the inverse of "palate-cleansers." Ringing these changes is in a different dimension than all the prescriptions and proscriptions of our believing world. We can temper our disgusts and share others blisses; good manners in food as well as religion.
[The article could end here, but the recipes could be a sidebar. Perhaps the names of the recipes should be multiple or removed, to universalize them.]
One cannot blunt the edge of appetite with imagination of a feast: heres some recipes. Food enjoyment is infectious. Think of a variation of these relishes that fits your understanding of wonderful food. Provenance, proportions and cooking technique or absence thereof are mutable according to the role in the culinary choir you want them to fill.
Decades after the above delineated Chai debacle, a provisional solution has emerged in my catering kitchens.
Grind fresh ginger, cardamon, ceylon cinnamon, a little cloves, and nutmeg together with honey or heavy organic sugar syrup to a paste or syrup. The finer the better.
Present this distillation of desire alongside coffee, boiling water, teabags (black, roasted grain, and any non-acidic herb tea), 1/2&1/2, fat-free milk , unsweetened soymilk (all organic for maximum appeal). The most diverse crowds are able to assemble beverages they can all share in their differences.
Even better, mixing the syrup with any kind of sweet fruitpreserved or not, vinegar, salt, garlic, and black pepper will produce a distinctive and memorable relish appropriate to a spiritually uplifting range of events from high teas to Seders.
Following through on the principle of Change.
No relish should be an island. The rest of the archipelago could include:
Sambal Iris[Salsa Cruda, Peaz la lacha, Ezme Salata] --Chopped onion, fresh chilis red and/or green mild or spicy, tomatoes (those boring crunchy winter ones are fine here), salt, lime/lemon juice (or even various vinegars). Aromatics from chiffonade of flatleaf parsley, arugula, mint, basil, kaffir lime leaf, cilantro to lime zest, shiso leaf, viet mint and beyond can all heighten the perceived value.
Sambal Ketjap[nuoc cham, prik dong nahm som, patis&calamansi]--soy sauce (or fish sauce), citrus juice, ground fresh green (or red) chilis, tons
Duk'kah[Gomasio, sambal garing]--Toast sesame seeds , whole coriander seeds, whole cumin seeds. Add salt. Grind coarsely in mortar&pestle, blender or food processor. You might also add: crisp fried onions/garlic, walnuts or filberts/hazelnuts, black pepper