Jose Que and the KRYPTO-HUICHOL FOOD MANDALA
Jose Que imagines an order of magic theater in which some real relationship could be established--between the commercial presentation of food in the socially customary restaurant--and what happens when people who understand the principles of preparation, service and the like actually come together and eat real food
Que is wearing the cross-stitched Huichol mara'akame costume, with the eight-pointed star embroidered on the shirtfront and the straw hat with red dangling fluffballs.
Who could do it? Who could actually pull it off? (Instead of) taking the idea of the theater to the restaurant, to take the restaurant to the theater. There will be the time when banks of people sit to watch others eat. It has happened: the cooking demonstrations, where those who helped or contributed got to eat and the rest got to watch.
The future is driving through the Shell sign. (In the tv ad, what appears to be a landscape turns out to be a framed paper trompe l'oeil, through which a car is driven, getting better mileage on Shell, or some such implication).
The past is telling the truth. The truth is that which has been set into the marked state. It is always measured from the point of view of an observer, presumably in the present, the time of duration. Often it is possible to agree upon a conventional way in which a/the truth is to be regarded--as such we enjoy the conventional use of language, attempting the quite impossible task of representing in a system that has certain qualities, something that does not have those qualities. So we pick our systems of representation. We choose our media of artistic expression, the disciplines we are willing to master in order to represent, if only symbolically, those truths we can confirm by introspection. That is why it is not a waste of time to read Henry Miller, who is always, for the same ultimate reasons, very funny.
To understand how far we have come from the real thing, in the charade that is presented as California cuisine, consider the consumption of animal flesh, and the business of killing the animals. We can imagine a spectrum of "closeness to the actual act of sacrifice." Already, by choosing the euphemism "sacrifice" for "killing" our approach is changed. But all life feeds on other life. It was after a replete meal, when only chocolate, coffee, nicotine, and other bitter fruits and herbs that technically qualify as drugs were still being consumed, Jose Que visualized the possibility of KRYPTO-HUICHOL CUISINE.
The well-known buzz of a mosquito reminded him that he was still awake. Death, they say, comes from the air. Here comes the tax collector, just another one of those beings whom we feed: IT EATS YOU. And the rumbling in his belly signalled the gas producing activity of parasitical colonies of protozoa, lodged in their gastrointestinal river of nourishment. IT EATS YOU. It is eating you all the time. THEY are eating you. But the little guys are hard to see, and harder to catch.
In Sam and Sarah's Cafe of a Distant Kalpa, you want a steak? Fine. There's a steer. Kill it and we'll all eat steak. And then what happens when all the steak has been served? So here is this dead beast, who (or which), that it might not have died in vain, must be honored, not wasted. Life, and the process of life feeding on life is a deep organizing principle of the universe, toward which--it is good--we pay our respects. Where then is the recipe for what to do with the toughest meat? The steaks were delicious, thank you. And now the shanks with gristle and fat. And the bones in the beef broth, and marrow jelly. What's left is the dog's delight--no not the sort of city dogs who are registered patients of Dr. Ross. Rather country dogs, such as Jose Que's own companion (one who comes together at table to share bread), Dog Juan.
In the Teachings of Dog Juan there is a brief account of what happened to butchers. On the continent there are butchers. In France, there is the sausage man and the real meat market. In Strassbourg there are very special butchers, and there are shops that just sell pate. In Sacramento there is an excellent grocery with a butcher who purveys prime meat. Now it used to be that a few years ago they also cut the meat there, so in would come the sides of beef as carcases ready for cutting, the lambs and hoggets. From such a cutter of meat Jose Que could always get a bone for Dog Juan. Then things changed, and the butcher did not cut his own meat anymore. Another remove was inserted between Dog Juan and the reality of death: the sacrifice (a cognate, by the way with the Spanish "Sacramento," the sacrament), the killing of the real animal, the karmic act, without any hypocritical overburden of moralistic judgment, as an objective phenomenon. No more bones for Dog Juan. But into that new slot came the expert/specialist meat-cutter. It used to be a butcher, a real human being, a person you could see and talk to and with whom you could discuss the next day's or the evening's meal. Then the process became one more step removed from the dogs who might beg bones--something, by the way that ties us into the consciousness of our illustrious forebearers in a way that goes back some fifty thousand years at least (and not to be lightly dismissed), an activity in which human beings interact with the world of animals directly, thereby receiving some message about the sense of equality of consciousness of all sentient beings.
The same story could be told of local butchers who have become purveyors of meat. I would like to hear some brief interviews with old time butchers. "Arg! These guys nowadays...they can't even cut meat." It's not that they don't, or even that they won't. They can't, they don't know how.
"There is the Taoist story of Ch'ing the butcher, who had the sharpest knife in town. The bad cooks sharpened their knives all the time: they dulled the edges the way they worked, and they couldn't sharpen a knife very well anyway. The good cooks used their knives with more skill, in part made possible by the fact that they started with sharper edges. Ch'ing the butcher hardly ever sharpened his knife. Asked why, he said he only cut through the spaces."
One of the things we are losing fast is the direct and real relationship of the food we eat to the real world from which it has been plucked for our plate. The consequences of this can be readily seen at the back door of almost any restaurant in town. The meat order arrives. OK. What does it look like. The cook inspects the meat order. It has arrived in some truck painted with the name of a meat company that used to employ real butchers, but which is now owned by a distant and much larger company that has transshipped its meat looking like nothing any of us or any of our old butchers would ever have done to the meat. It really doesn't: not in terms of smell or color or form or texture or temperature. So it would be very surprising indeed if such meat would taste the same as that which a real butcher might have cut. And the same can be written of vegetables. An order of psychic distance has been inserted between our experience of, say, the individual carrot as it arrives in the kitchen and that carrot as it had been growing in its garden row.
It took a very special set of mind for someone to come up with the idea of doing to carrots what none of us in our right minds could have contemplated. Never mind the process by which commercial carrots are grown, what they are fed and how they are protected--for their own good, of course--from the bugs and viruses that would eat their share before we got them on our plates. It is quite enough to contemplate the large plastic bag of cold carrots, sorted for uniform size, their green tops cut off. Why, what kind of old time carrot cook would decapitate the honorable vegetable sacrifice a week, a day, even an hour before the time in which its prana or life energy was to be eaten? In the process of being consumed by righteous humanity, doesn't even the humble carrot as much as the body of the sacrificial lamb, or cow, or chicken or onion, transcend its vegetable karma, to the extent that it has any? After all, it has been alive, growing, feeding, since the Third Day of Creation deriving energy from our common local star, the sun.
No sir! Eating in restaurants, or any commercial food, for that matter, is a very different thing from eating at home. Moreover, it is known just how and why levels of distinction have come about. The principles are illustrated in Jose Que's KRYPTO-HUICHOL FOOD MANDALA.
The Huichol people live in the mountain fastness of the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico, where they have lived since the time came for time to begin. Early in the twentieth century, having noticed a vicious display of military, political, economic and psychic neuroses on the part of the Mexican federal government, the Huichol people, in their wisdom and compassion, temporarily removed themselves from a part of the high desert country that is one of the very, very few places on the face of the earth in which grows the most sacred and wonderful food known to the Huichol people, known as "the food of the blue deer." [Peyote cactus] This was around 1906. They would rather have stayed where they were, close to the source of this marvellous food that nourished and sustained the body, warmed and opened the heart, awakened and clarified the mind, refreshed and freed the spirit. Following a lengthy and frequently painful series of negotiations, implicit since the first Europeans arrived on the American continent (which was in most places already "settled" thank you very much), the Huichols one day discovered the troops of the Federales blocking the trail to the sea. Now this was the ancient and sacred way those people returned, every year, to pay their respects to their own ancestors, to the history of who they were and how they got there, and to the ocean as a vast repository of life itself. If they were prevented from making the trip, the entire religious cycle of festivals, indeed, the cohesive fabric of the social body would be rent, their traditions in turmoil. But there was a consideration even more important. Salt.
In the early 1970s, I had occasion to visit a high valley in Colorado, on the eastern slope of the continental divide, along the Cache la Poudre River. There one of the Tibetan Lamas, wandering over the world like ants, according to the predictions, when the iron bird flew in the west, there Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche had chose to establish a retreat, called Karma Dzong. There he gave extraordinary, radical audiences--it was hard to put them in the same bag as lectures or classes--and he hung out and told stories, in ways colorfully recorded by Rick Fields, for example, in How the Swans Came to the Lake: The story... in America. But one of the ways in which the teachings may be transmitted, as set forth in the Tibetan tradition itself, has to do with neither the written nor the spoken word: it is yet a more powerful mode of transmission. This mode is referred by the technical Sanskrit term, mudra, indicating "gesture," or image, a vision, an iconic perception, something seen all at once. There could be found around Karma Dzong cylindrical one-pound boxes of salt, provided--as it were by Providence Itself--for the free use of any humans or animals, presumably, who came by.
Some students must have realized that the situation in Colorado was very different than in Tibet (and for that matter different from the mountains and deserts of Mexico, or the Sahara). In Tibet, as in the deserts of Mexico and the Sahara, salt is a precious commodity, at times (of no salt) worth more than gold or diamonds because it is essential for the maintenance of life itself. In Colorado it wasn't "Leslie Salt;" it wasn't "Morton's Salt." How was the name called? Why both as a brand name and as an injunction: the label read: CAREY SALT. This does not say that salt is good or bad; it doesn't say we're eating too much salt, or not enough. Some people would have to read it aloud to hear the message, which very simple and clear cut. It sounds like good general advice for human beings: carry salt!
We flaunt the Fates if we so much as begin to forget what we really need. It is the custom of the Huichol peyote shaman to refrain from the use of salt, in addition to observing many other details of traditional behavior, before eating the sacred food. Sacred food provides the highest order of eating, in this or any other culture. There are several books now that describe traditional sacraments, theophagies, communions and elevations of the Host. But to have the experience of reading about it is not to have the experience of it. Such eating is, however, conventionally regarded as being beyond words. In a technical sense it is secret. This is not the sort of secret that is whispered about the school ground, not gossip (We know something you don't know). It is secret because it must be experienced to be understood, comprehended, embodied--mere intellectual knowledge of verbal accounts is not sufficient.
That is why, upon entering the sacred precinct at Eleusis, among the very most holy of sites throughout centuries of ancient Greece right down to the last days of the culture, everyone had to eat the sacred food, partake of the holy mixture, the kykeon. No auditors. No kibbitzing.
The motto might be the same as that presented by Idries Shah in his recounting of the "Story of Tea:" He who tastes, knows. He who tastes not, knows not.
There is a chorus of charlatans and mountebanks delivering their minds, such as they are, especially to the people of the State of California on the subject of food and eating. But many, it seems, have not tasted and do not know. "What about these boring, bullshit recipes the San Furnsisco EXTERMINATOR has been publishing all these years? When will any of these establishment experts address the real issues about food today? Who cares about the latest Slick's favorite recipe for sugar sweet, or the technique for slicing salmon very, very thin so as to fan it out prettily on the plate with dollops of an idiot-simple sauce gussied up and decorated beyond all recognition of the nature and origin of the food? For sure there will not be enough of that, i.e. food, on the plate to satisfy an ordinary appetite. But that's how many tap dance to keep the doors open: try to make $15 when someone sits down, by serving them a little bit of food that has come a long, long way from where it started with most of the tracks well swept-over. Sure! Serve the scallops of pork loin that someone else (whoever, wherever) smokecured--and cut 'em real thin so they go a long way, as though there were much farther to go."
What can be said about the Diamond Sutra is that it wasn't that kind of a restaurant. Even on the front lines today, in the most hectic, commercial enterprise, if there is a cook who takes the time and the care to bring loving attention to the preparation of a dish, it is sure to sell out. It happens over and over again: without drawing any special attention to the dish, sometimes without even adding it to the written menu, the power and presence of such food magically calls attention to itself. No surprize that sensitive people respond.
Step by step we might demonstrate how it appears that the food of a traditional cuisine--such as that of Mexican food in California--might illustrate the principles of the KRYPTO-HUICHOL FOOD MANDALA.
Let us consider that we have already taken the first step, taking account of sacred food, which we might imagine as the center of the mandala, about which we shall here say nothing further, thereby assigning to it a value equivalent to that of the void. Although perhaps unspoken, the ways in which a people relate to sacred food in any sort of coherent society profoundly affect the whole of the secular food domain as well. Since we have already called sacred food the highest of levels, then let us begin at the other end.
ONE. Let us just call it category ONE. It doesn't matter; we could start anywhere. In this category is the lowest form of food. This does not automatically imply a judgement about good or bad. By lowest, we mean that there is the least amount of human consciousness that has been infused in that particular food, the least ritual shamanic magic and old timey juju always and ever associated with food at the other end of the scale. Thus, in this category come most processed foods, sterilized food untouched by human hands, the packaged food product. Infant's formula. Right at the beginning of the line, processed, sterilized, and packaged in premeasured portions, bearing no traces of ever having been touched by human hands. But it must be mixed with water in order to be fed to babies.
The water in much of the world, and inmost of the countries of the Third World is routinely subject to contamination. As a consequence, the babies suffer from malnutrition, dehydration, diarrhea, dysentery, parasites and other effects of polluted water from which they might have been spared had they been traditionally breast fed. Being young and tender, as yet unweaned, the babies are much more vulnerable to this kind of infection because they have not as yet had the opportunity to develop the capabilities of their own natural immune systems. Widespread illiteracy compounds these problems when mothers who cannot read or follow instructions naturally fail to prepare or to administer the formula properly. The global population crisis is also affected, for when mothers do not breast feed, but instead use infant's formula, statistics show more pregnancies with a shorter time between pregnancies. This is only partly offset by the increased human suffering brought about by higher infant mortality. Not only that: since cash is needed to buy infant's formula, and should the cash be at all difficult to come by, traditional modes of subsistence are abandoned--even traditional practices of art and handicrafts, as well as modes of farming and family life--rendering the children more culturally impoverished than ever. You might ask what this has to do with Mexican (or KRYPTO-HUICHOL) cuisine. Better you should rephrase: What does this have to do with food in Mexico and California? Paranoid politicians remind us that one can walk back and forth.
In America...in California, our packaged foods are reliably clean. Maybe a little too clean, too antiseptic. Maybe it would be OK for us to eat a few more of those germs and not to suffer so much from the consequences of herbicides and insecticides, fumigants and preservatives.
Many grocery stores in California have specialty sections featuring oriental, international and particularly Mexican foods. Handy quantities of typical spices, small family-sized cans of refried beans, pickled chiles, taco sauces, green tomatillos, cactus bits (nopalitos), and otherwise unusual items are becoming far more readily available. What we are wanting is a review and rating chart for such items, with a consumer's guide to quality, flavor, authenticity, and so forth. All the other, highly processed, tightly packaged foods come to mind: tortilla chips, much of the cheese and chorizo, frozen tamales, Mexican chocolate, vanilla. If you want to eat Mexican food with some degree of expediency, you cannot easily avoid these items. Take chips. Nothing could be easier than heating up some oil to deep fry the left-over tortillas into chips. That home-made way allows you to control the amount of salt, by the way. But it's not always such an easy matter: the tortillas all got eaten; there were no tortillas; let's throw out the tortillas because they have already turned green. So it comes time to buy chips, because the guacamole is on the way. Where is the chip consumer's guide when we need it? It helps to have a territorial breakdown for fresh local suppliers. Murillo's in Vacaville will sell them to you to go. My favorites used to be made fresh every day at the old La Luna tortilla factory at Rutherford in the heart of the Napa Valley. But that building has long since been taken down, and although the relocated store is now only a block away, the tortillas packaged under the La Luna label are made in Healdsburg, and arrive very cold. One of the best-tasting chips lately has been Mi Rancho. Nevertheless, funny thing about corn chips, to call them by their old name, once you get hooked on a taste, it's hard to shake. I think I became addicted to Fritos at such an impressionable age that I cannot easily leave them even now. Perhaps, unwittingly, I even grew to like BHA and BHT. Who can explain it?
My current taco sauce of choice: Santa Cruz green. I don't like Mexican chocolate at all. Such an obviously inferior product cannot be considered in the same breath with the superlative achievements of Switzerland's chocolatiers. Lindt products are consistently fine for a commercial brand, and relatively easy to find. Mexican vanilla may all be poison. Knowledge is power.
Two last items on the list. I, personally, wouldn't feel most at my ease in a kitchen without Best Food Real Mayonnaise--in the East, I go for the Hellman's. Mayonnaise is not that hard to make fresh, now that food processors are common; and homemade is cheaper, probably much better for you, and tastes just fine. But it doesn't taste THE SAME, you know, "the way it always used to taste...the way itshouldtaste." And there is another packaged, commercial item, rather difficult to find, although it turns up in surprising places: little cans of MOLE (pronounced MO-LAY) HELPER. This is a blend of ground and mixed spices, containing coriander, cumin, chiles of various sorts, and other ingredients including chocolate, in small enough quantities as to be inoffensive. This is a very handy item, MOLE HELPER, if used correctly. The approved technique calls for punching holes in the top of the can, starting with one in the center, then with a double (inner and outer) eight-pointed star around it. The whole can is then used as a shaker. Make no mistake, MOLE HELPER is not only for moles. A little shaken into the guacamole does no harm, of course. It's great on fresh buttered corn on the cob, but then so is the Santa Cruz salsa verde. Some aver that MOLE HELPER dusted ever so lightly over the grounds will make a whole pot taste like real Mexican coffee, although this is suspect. When it gets right down to the real Nitty Gritty, as Shirley Ellis would say, MOLE HELPER, that sly and versatile item, is ESSENTIAL for the construction of any self-respecting molé.