Dialects of Food

Cooking and eating have been integral to human existence since the beginning of man.  Still playing a pivotal role in societies, food is the glue of social life.  Even in modern social settings people tend to migrate to the kitchen.  Perhaps it is a place of traditional warmth, the nurturing heart chakra of a household, or is it we are genetically programmed to mix food and conversation?  It could be any one of these, but the power of food cannot be denied and should not be underestimated, especially when people are hungry!

If one steps back a generation or two, mothers in every neighborhood were most often ensconced in the kitchen, providing meals and raising children. This behind the scenes activity functioned as the true center of society and the primary network for nurturing the soul and nourishing the body.  In most cultures, the art of cooking was primarily passed from mother to daughter and house to house rather than books, media chefs or cooking schools.

When I visited both Greece and India, these culinary traditions were intact.  The women were generally adept in cooking and the specifics of every local ingredient.  In India, the repertoire was usually greater because of the size of the Subcontinent.  The locals were expert at their cuisine and food from outside their cultural boundaries was completely foreign. I experienced this when cooking for my family in Crete.  They were awestruck at the preparations I made, much the same as I was about their cooking.  It was exciting to experience culinary perspectives beyond our normal spheres and to see how others interacted with food, often with simplicity and purity. We shared recipes, exchanged foods and learned from each other without the boundaries of language and society. The experience cemented my conviction that food is a universal language with many dialects as well as a wonderful tool to reach the heart of anyone, friend or stranger. 


A Holiday Dinner


Christmas Eve was the warmest and most beautiful day since our arrival in San Diego a few weeks ago.  I had procured most of the ingredients the day before at the farmers market and began to assemble the menu around three o’clock.  It was an ambitious menu, but the sunshine and thoughts of the Mediterranean inspired me.  Spyros had come over the previous afternoon to help prepare numerous desserts.  This day, he came to help with dinner.  We enjoyed the dance along with the help from Sara, Andrew and Linda.  


Formulating a holiday dinner starts a few days before.  I reserve creative decisions until seeing what is available at the farmer’s market. This Sunday provided zucchini blossoms with baby zucchinis attached.  Fresh basil and Meyer lemons were a few stalls down.  As I gathered ingredients, zucchini blossoms stuffed with pesto and baked in an almond-lemon sauce took shape in my mind.  In amongst the plethora of oranges, lemons and tangerines, I found dried Borlotti beans and Cavolo Nero kale which came together in a dish with roasted garlic and laced with a balsamic reduction.  


Spyros and I started two doughs, first Armenian tahini bread and, second, Tuscan fennel bread.  Wild rice polenta was placed in a double boiler on the stovetop and arrabiata sauce simmered behind.  On the side, flageolet beans simmered for a salad of toasted fennel, shallots, fresh squeezed lemon, extra virgin olive oil and wilted arugula.  We breaded zucchini and eggplant to compliment organic farfalle with pistachio-mint pesto and roasted beets for Greek horiatiki style salata.  Everyone participated with anticipation for the 7:00pm serving time.  As we sat around the large table to eat, all twelve participants passed dishes and plates and enthused over the variety and visual presentations. Holiday toasts abounded and, very soon, humor and laughter dominated the conversations.  


After a while the group cleared the table, washed dishes and cleaned the kitchen. The dinner was allowed to digest for a spell before dessert was to be presented.  Sara, as the doyen of desserts, had instructed me to have a number available.  I offered banana coconut cream pie garnihed with coconut custard and served on strawberry sauce along with a chocolate almond tart garnished with hot fudge sauce and organic blackberry sauce.  On the side was the centuries old recipe for the addictive Armenian tahini bread.  A triad of sweetness, three points of satiation to finish off a wonderful holiday gathering.

Hillcrest Farmers Market


 The Hillcrest Farmers Market has become like a second home in San Diego. Normally full of plant based splendor, the winter market is scaled down to winter vegetables and fruits such as persimmons, kales and satsuma tangerines.  From a Midwestern mindset, the market has plenty, but the farmers only have what is locally available and there is much more in the late spring to summer.  This week I found fresh pressed sweet organic pomegranate juice, freshly harvested almonds (entirely different than the dried relatively tasteless things we are used to), fresh dried organic raisins, an abundance of winter greens and lettuces, fresh sorrel, zucchini blossoms, heirloom tomatoes as well as the last of the Reed avocados.  Mariella Balbi is back at the market selling her incredible Peruvian chocolates (www.guannichocolates.com).  She lost her home and business in the fires and is one of many people here with harrowing stories to share.  She has rebounded with a series of handcrafted “after the fire” chocolates.  After a pisco laced chocolate diversion,  I also found red posole and fresh local macadamia nuts in amongst pineapple guavas, Persian limes and Meyer lemons.  One of the more treasured finds were local organic jumbo Medjool dates and I was pleasantly surprise to encounter local bananas from Carlsbad.  A walk through the market is a sensual awakening of aromas, tastes, sights, sounds and textures.  The gifts of the land are at the fingertips as inspiration stirs within and the next meal is contemplated The sun shines without a cloud in the deep blue sky, complimenting the white tents, rainbows of colorful fruits, vegetables and flowers as well as a variety of people who mingle for freshly harvested food. Farmers markets regenerate awareness of earthly connections and can be a wonderful beginning to the time honored rituals of this holiday week.


Regeneration Through Chocolate


Our organic world exists through regeneration, demonstrated in the cycle of growth, decay and rebirth of endlessly mutable elements. For a quality life, we embrace this process and utilize these elements to further growth, maintain equilibrium, or to stave off inevitable demise. To this end, consumption of nutrients is the main tool.  

Life is maintained, enhanced and regenerated with the absorption of nourishment being affected by the total nurturing experience. Chemical, emotional and spiritual balance are directly influenced by combinations of ingredients, how they are prepared and what emotional state the cook is in.  Significant factors for passing on traditions, incorporating healing elements and our ability to enjoy food.  

Chocolate is a good example.  It chemically affects our moods as it also boosts health with anti-oxidants. Working with and serving chocolate almost always exudes romance and drama.  Consuming it can be an obsession, but on more basic levels, it gives a rare pleasure. If we approach every food with such attentive embraces, the world would be a better, and sustainable, place.

About Taste


The word “taste” has multiple meanings.  It is used simultaneously for what passes over the taste buds as well as a knack for appreciating finer things, whatever they may be.  When we say someone has good taste, they have a discerning palate or discerning vision.  Food is the key underlying nurturing ingredient in our daily lives.  Good food stands out and those that can provide it, such as chefs, are treated like rock stars.  The ancient Vedic wisdom tells us the tongue is the most difficult to control of all the senses.  For many of us, food can become an addiction, taste overcomes a reasonable sense of quantity. It is inseparably attached to our emotions and, according to the mood, food tends to be consumed indiscriminately.  With the modern consumer driven society, it has spiraled out of control to the point of people not even knowing what they are eating.  The general public palate has de-evolutionized to the point of being centered on fat, salt, sugar and meat; the centerpieces of trade and empire since the beginning of the age of exploration.  The last hundred years have also removed us from the earth.  A much smaller percentage of people live close to the planet in a symbiotic way.  We are on the brink of losing taste!  Fortunately, a revolution in food is occurring on a societal level.  With the organic farming industry at the forefront, many consumers are not accepting second best and are revolting with their pocket books.  People want to be healthy and enjoy life. One of the key ingredients to attaining optimum vitality is discovering good taste through the bounty of the earth and the cultures that have been close to it.  This is one reason why traditional cuisines have experienced a renaissance style revival in many urban centers.  Indian, Italian, French, Chinese, Greek, Ethiopian, Thai, Lebanese, Persian, Moroccan and many others have become part of out culinary dialect.  It is an exciting time when we can choose to “travel” to, and have choices with, many cuisines of the world.  


Royal Oak Farmers Market Report


Two days after Thanksgiving and the market is bustling.  Christmas greens and decorations are infiltrating the market, but there is still plenty of produce as the first hard freeze was only a week ago.  With limited time I was only able to talk to a few people, mostly in the northeast corner. Cinzori Farms had red and yellow beets, 3 kinds of kale, tat tsoi, cabbages, onions and a plethora of heirloom squashes.  Don told me about his daughter Janie’s travels in New Zealand where she was working on organic farms for 6 months.  Shelly Mazur had fresh chanterelles mushrooms and the amazing dried porcinis from the Italian Alps.  Jim Burda featured Michigan cranberries, homemade granola, cherry baked goods and Denise’s incredible fruit jams.  Rounding the bend, Don Van Houtte’s booths featured magnificent displays of flowering kale towering over autumn staples of onions, potatoes, chiles and, of course, squash.  Across the aisle, Busy Bee Orchards were still going strong with what looked like 6 or 7 varieties of apples.  I stopped in to see Heather Rosencrantz at Dirty Girl Farms to look at spices before landing at Peter Uhlianuk’s booth to jokingly harass him about having paper whites so early.


Peter’s brother George had a colorful display of holiday foliage.  We always enjoy calling out each other’s name. Fittingly, “George” means “farmer” in Greek.  On the way out, I wanted to catch Jim Van Den Berg before the season was over and was surprised to see he still had red leaf lettuce.  Jim said they would be at the market another 2 weeks or so.  I expect he will be selling carrots mostly.  


The Sprout House in Grosse Pointe Park


It was a blustery rainy day in autumn and the weather was starting to change from cool to icy. We found ourselves on the eastside in Grosse Pointe cruising for a late lunch, so we stopped at The Sprout House, a small natural food grocery and deli. Our expectations were simple and we knew the food was trustable—good organic ingredients and vegetarian oriented. Sara and I ordered the Mediterranean Lentil Soup, Lemony Petit French Lentil Soup, a Mediterranean Tofu Sandwich and a Carrot-Apple-Ginger Juice. Everything was flavorful and balanced with not too much garlic, herb or oil as is often the case in commercial food. The lentil soups were distinct with the Mediterranean Lentil thick and rich with tomato while the French Lentil had just enough lemon and herb to satiate. The sandwich had a vegan black olive mayo, baked tofu patty and fresh organic greens on organic Avalon Bakery bread. Easy to eat, good flavor and great texture made for a very enjoyable sandwich. We sat down at one of two small tables in the front of the store to enjoy the food. The affable server brought my carrot-apple-ginger juice to us. It was great—freshly made and thirst-quenching. During previous visits with friends, the small dining area was a social hub for the neighborhood. Times like these remind me that the Detroit area has a wonderfully vibrant and aware community. The Sprout House in Grosse Pointe Park has been in business since 1980 when Bonnie Breidenbach first opened it. Just before we opened Inn Season Café, Bonnie outbid my offer for the Yellow Bean Cafe, a hole in the wall soy foods deli on Mack, where she started teaching about and serving Macrobiotic foods. After a couple of moves and a few other owners, The Sprout House became a neighborhood institution. Camaraderie between Inn Season Cafe and The Sprout House was always there, especially when second owner Muriel had it. We shared employees, stories and took care of each other. Today, it was encouraging to see the standards of health and organics still being maintained by the current owners. I applaud their efforts and it is worth a stop when in the area.

Go there!

The Sprout House 15233 Kercheval St, Grosse Pointe Park Michigan 48230 Tel: 313-331-3200

Inn Season Cafe


Sara and I had lunch at Inn Season Cafe on Friday.  We do not get there as often as we like, our life in Birmingham seems far away even though it is only five miles.  The food was excellent.  I had a wonderfully fresh carrot-apple-ginger juice with a flavorful potato-dill soup.  Sara had the chili, good as always.  We shared the Barbecued Seitan Sandwich and found it to be balanced, without the rubbery texture wheat gluten often has.  The service was great, especially since we were doted on by our longtime friends Jenny, Amber and Jennifer.  It has been over five years since we sold the Cafe and it is exciting to see the restaurant well run, busy and successful.  Kudos to Chef Thomas and Nick for keeping it up as a vibrant centerpiece in the Royal Oak restaurant community.  

I am currently mulling over the final edits of the Inn Season Cookbook (working title) and look forward to the day when it is for sale at the restaurant and bookstores. After all these years there is light at the end of the tunnel!  The book covers the the period from when we first opened the cafe in 1981 to when I sold it in July, 2002.  

Inn Season Cafe

500 East Fourth Street, Royal Oak, MI 48067

Tel: 248-547-7916


Jeanie McNeil, A Good Friend

robert-and-jeanie.jpgroyal-oak-03-2006-053.avi < Video of Jeanie

I first met Robert Taylor in India in 1975.  We both cooked at a temple in Vrndavan, Uttar Pradesh.  In a twist of destiny we both ended up in the Detroit area.  Robert met Jeanie twelve years ago and had been inseparable since.  Robert is an astrologer and natural performer.  Jeanie wrote a small, but potent book on positive affirmations and shared it with anyone in her path.  Together, they became local television celebrities with their respective programs on channel 5 in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.  We did a number of shows together about my restaurant at the time (Inn Season Cafe) food and spirituality.
Jeanie’s positive disposition was infectious. Whenever we spent time together, I would depart feeling spiritually uplifted. She was a unique soul.  The last TV show we did together was a tour of our Royal Oak Fifth Street project, a traditional California Craftsman home.  As a twist, when we entered the kitchen, I gave a short cooking demonstration, tying the home to a natural and organic lifestyle and we recently discussed doing the same with the current project just before she fell ill.  Even though we occasionally saw each other, Jeanie was the kind of person who left a lasting impression.  Her spirit and work inspires us to teach and share without pre-qualification. Robert and Jeanie are the kind of  people one rarely meets in a lifetime and whenever we visited together it was as if there had been no lapse of time. I consider there friendship an honor, cherish the memories and look forward to assisting Robert to carry on Jeanie’s legacy. Together, they made the community a better place.  With her passing, her presence in our hearts will encourage us to continue.

The pain of losing a spouse comes over one in unexpected ways. After years together, couples personalities become intertwined in what seems to be inseparable ways. When death pries this bonded persona apart, one of the more difficult things to deal with is facing the loneliness. With Jeanie’s passing, this has become something Robert and I have in common, I contemplated what would be helpful and decided to cook for him. A memorial can be taxing for the person who lost a companion and nourishing the body is an important thing to do. Robert, Jeanie, Sara and I had lunch together just a few weeks before Jeanie fell ill. During our meal, we discussed diabetes and cures. One of them was an Ayurvedic preparation made of bitter melon and turmeric. I took a trip to a local Indian store and found Kharela (Indian bitter melon), chana dahl, fresh neem leaves, cilantro and ginger. I entered the kitchen to make a few preparations that Robert would cherish.

Robert and first met in India sharing time as apprentices to Anand Maharaj, a cook whose family goes back six generations at the Jagannath Puri Temple in Orissa. While there, I learned the famous Jagannath Puri dahl recipe that has been distributed for hundreds of years at the temple. I prepared it to serve with Gujarati Debra (blue millet and fresh fenugreek leaf bread) and Matri (a semolina, cracked wheat and crushed fennel cracker) as well as Kharela (baked bitter melon with turmeric). It had been a while since I cooked Indian food in the traditional manner and did so while meditating on Jeanie, Robert, Anand and the spiritual path of food I had learned in Vrndavan. For me, it was a re-awakening, memories of sensual moments in India were flooding my mind. Back then, we were cooking in the all marble kitchen of Krsna-Balaram Mandir which had just opened and we would assist Anand in making twenty five dishes every day for Raj Bhog. Daily, five parrots would sit in a row watching us in the small openings in the stone lattice walls outside the kitchen window. Living in the spiritual center of India was a mystical time for all of us and I experienced traditions and cultural phenomena which could be traced back 5,000 years. To this day, my cooking carries the influence of those times. This foray into the kitchen allowed me to relive it as I had experienced it and I am grateful to have had a friends such as Jeanie and Robert to coax it out of me.

Cultivating the Earth


“Let us never forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. Man may be civilized in some degree without great progress in manufactures and with little commerce with his distant neighbors. But without the cultivation of the earth, he is, in all countries, a savage. Until he gives up the chase and fixes himself in some place, and seeks a living from the earth, he is a roaming barbarian. When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.

  – Daniel Webster