The Zen of Pesto — A Counterculture Chef’s Kitchen Encounter

Gabel centered the big, copper-bottomed stainless steel rice pot upon one of the industrial sized gas burners. Few things in this world were as pristinely pure as a plain, unadorned bowl of brown rice. Of course, you had to be in the right mind frame to appreciate it.

Decades of disciplined eating regimens hadn’t slayed the side of him that longed to dive into one of those big, greasy, 16-inch double-cheese everything-on-it pizzas of his youth, back in the ‘60s, that clogged the arteries just by looking at them.

He walked to the sink and got a water hose to fill the too-heavy-to-carry-full pot. This morning there were no helping hands around to prepare lunch. ‘Alone on the range’ — it was great for thinking and meditating, if not always for cooking.

Gabel squeezed the hose trigger until water covered the grains plus two knuckles more. After igniting a medium flame beneath the uncovered pot, he embarked on his pesto ingredients scavenger hunt…

Years later and looking back, he realized that his health food transformation had been the just opening volley of a broader, yet similar transformation to come. Just as the eating changeover resulted from his deeper perception of food, his change in worldview had sprung from a deeper perception of reality.

Like a fat-marbled steak, a good time from the perspective of taste, but a real bomb on the health-food scale—a lot of the most basic tenets and priorities of his life had to be reshuffled once he’d come upon another dimension, beyond time and space; parallel to and interacting with everyday reality, but with parameters all its own.

The jolt of discovering this ‘fifth’ dimension affected different people in different ways. Some would just dive into it—which could be very pleasant—letting it dominate and nearly nullify their previous lives. At first, Gabel envied them; they seemed, unlike himself, so clear and un-conflicted until he began to notice signs of burnout and backlash that inevitably followed such drastic change.

Not unlike the 36 chocolate bar binge that had sent one of his earliest and most fanatical health food disciples (who’d foresworn overnight everything but the barest, simplest raw foods) to the hospital and nearly the morgue, jumping too quickly into the fifth dimension could be hazardous to your health.

Others had reacted differently, resenting the effort of navigating an additional dimension. They treated the fifth dimension like an annoying intruder that had to be acknowledged (once you’ve seen it you couldn’t ignore it) but with minimal impact on their lives. They’d seek loopholes to get around its needs, and glibly brag about getting the best of both worlds, although it looked to him like they’d ended up with neither.

Gabel’s way was to neither recklessly jump into 5-D reality nor skirt it, but rather to gather it together with the lower four dimensions into a seamless whole. It made sense to him and jived with the cooking tack he’d developed earlier, on his own, preparing food that was delicious and uncompromisingly healthy too. Even so, integrating a new, previously unperceived dimension was a challenge.

…The cook peered into the tall, commercial refrigerator. Hadn’t Jaela mentioned something about picking some fresh herbs a couple of days ago for a sauce she never got to? If there was no ready basil on hand, the whole project was a non-starter…Ahh, there you are, and he slid out the basin of pungent leaves. They were slightly wilted, but where they were going, it wouldn’t make a difference. If he had basil, he’d have pesto. Had he planned it, he’d have stocked up on the other ingredients. But, anyone could cook when you had everything you needed — the true test is to make it happen when the cupboard was bare.

With basil, garlic and olive oil the only ‘real’ pesto ingredients he had on hand, Gabel’s ‘cook’s-mind’ began to turn. Almonds would become his pine nuts with a minimum of difficulty, but finding something to take the place of parmesan cheese would be trickier. A softer cheese, even if he grated it, would just clump up and turn the pesto into a sticky quagmire. Suddenly an idea hit him that sent him up onto his stepping-stool, reaching for a big glass jar…

Were the fifth dimension simply some altered state of awareness, induced through meditation or hallucinogens and divorced from ordinary consciousness, it would have been easier. Gabel never clung to the old rules once the game changed. But the fifth dimension was inextricably tied to the lower four and had to be negotiated simultaneously. It was like finding out that the car you thought you were driving was really a plane or helicopter. Suddenly, besides forward, reverse, steer left or steer right, you had to deal with up, down, and hover. But this was even trickier, because the same turn of the steering wheel that swerved you right in the lower four dimensions could turn you left in the fifth.

…Brewer’s yeast flakes were the perfect solution: Grainy, cheesy, and even the right color. He  poured the yeast from the jar into the bowl of his big food processor together  with the peeled  garlic cloves; the flakes providing  a medium to prevent the cloves from slipping under the blades.

He pulsed it a few times to introduce everyone to each other, and then let it run steady until the garlic was chopped fine. Next—the almonds.  The yeast mixture would prevent the nuts from amalgamating into almond butter. He was tempted to blanch them first so the flecks of their brown skins wouldn’t rain on the basil’s bright green parade—but for the sake of time and nutrition, decided not to…

The concept of a newly revealed perception affecting reality had its parallels. For instance, once the microscope rendered bacteria visible, if the lens revealed toxins no one would eat the meal no matter how great it smelled or looked. And no matter how beautiful a woman might be, if a blood sample under the microscope showed a deadly communicable disease—you stayed away. Convenient or not, fifth-dimensional perception revealed a sharper view of reality; there was no looking back.

…Having processed in the salt and olive oil, it was now time for the pesto’s defining moment. The cook held the basil leaves aloft, respectfully inhaling their intoxicating,   peppery aroma before dropping them through the wide feed tube into the bowl. They were so green and trusting. Were they aware that they would soon dissolve into selflessness? Would they realize their apparently senseless trauma had a plan and purpose—to extract their essence and merge them into a greater whole?  Gabel wondered,   as he flipped the switch and set the wheels in motion.

Excerpted from the countercultural culinary novel, Crossriver (paperback or e-book

About the Author
Nesanel Yoel Safran, US born and a graduate of Brandeis, now living with his wife and family in the Judean Hills, is a writer, chef, and a teacher/student of Jewish spirituality. He blends these assorted vocations on his blog, Soul Foodie, where you can join him on mystical cooking adventures and glean practical wisdom for the kitchen — and for living.
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