The Best And The Worst And Cinnamon Walnut Meringues

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Recently, I have been spending my life in the kitchen. There has been lemon meringue pie, cheesecake, blackberry jam, peach galette, and these, the best of the bunch by far: cinnamon walnut meringues, with a hint of molasses. I generally think of meringues as sophisticated, highbrow food. Absurd yet adorable meringue mushrooms on Yule log cakes or dainty piped florettes in pastel colors. But these, these are homey in a deep way. The warmth of cinnamon and molasses, the earthiness of walnuts…yes. I think there’s something deeply nostalgic about molasses and cinnamon for Americans. I sink into wordless bliss when I bite into one of these.

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To me, that’s the best thing about food. That it can nourish our hearts, as well as our bodies, that it can tie us together and bring us back to ourselves when we wander astray. I put a basket of these guys in the community room and when I came back later, there was a note, rhapsodizing the joy this little meringue brought to some one’s afternoon, at just the moment when she really needed the culinary equivalent of a hug.

This is why I bake. This is why I cook. This is why I spend hours of my life reading and plotting and experimenting around food.

But it’s not the only reason. I wish it were the only reason.

The other reason is because often I can’t not. Because thinking about food is so natural and so much simpler than so many other things in life that it’s actually a problem sometimes. Let me explain.

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It goes like this: Important project in the back of my mind that should probably be accomplished sooner rather than later? But there’s blackberries that need to be harvested and turned into jam or they’ll go to waste! Painting stuck in a tough spot waiting to be resolved? Those egg whites have been sitting in the fridge for more than a week–it’s now or never. Anything at all remotely distressing or uncertain? Time to bake a cake, feel productive, be commended by lots of happy people eating that cake, and leave any worries for another day.

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This is the worst thing about food. That I use it as a distraction from addressing uncertainties, when I actually feel better if I just face up to them. And often, in the stress that goes along with ignoring important business, I wind up consuming a lot more of all such baked goods than I would if I were willing to listen and pay attention to my own needs and questions. You can’t blot out the natural changes of life or the inquietude that goes with those, even the good changes, but you can give yourself an awful stomach ache trying. Take my word for it.

A fortunate fact about meringues is that they’re mostly air, so even if you panic eat six or seven, you mostly end up with a sugar head ache and a renewed conviction to approach both the baking cupboard and your worries more mindfully.

Recipe follows…

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At The Oars (with Brownies for Sustenance)

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Si tu demandes une question aux maîtres, ils vont te donner la réponse qui va le plus te faire galèrer.

I could translate this like this:

“If you ask a question of the masters, they’re going to give you the answer that will make you work the most.” Reasonable enough. However, this misses the more particular sense of the word “galèrer.” It comes from the word “galère,” as in a galley, one of those enormous wooden ships built by nations in days of old that were out to take over the world. The verb “galèrer” refers to the dolorous business of rowing said craft when the winds were down. So now you see.

IMG_1843My friend Loïc said this to me last week in relation to the nature of planning one’s life around the study and practice of Dharma–what the Buddha taught. At the time I thought, “Pfft, everything about my journey has been super natural thus far. One week I was in Santa Barbara, the next in India, and now I live in France. I hardly had to anything but show up. It all just happened. Clearly this whole rowing-a-giant-boat business is a matter of perspective. He must be overthinking things.”

Yesterday I had a meeting with Jigme Rinpoche, a master teacher in the Kagyu Lineage and the spiritual guide of the center. I had a simple question: “Do you think it’s appropriate for me to prepare for a long-term retreat?” He had a simple answer: “Yes, I think it’s good.”

I promptly floundered. I had been mentally anticipating this meeting for weeks, debating about asking this question for months, considering this possible path for years. I crafted an extremely precise and thoroughly reflected e-mail just to request the meeting. Seventy-two seconds after showing up…that was it. I queried for more specific directives; books to read, things to do. Rinpoche nodded and said, “Yes, I think it’s good you came back. You live here in the community; keep studying, meditate, prepare for some years.”

IMG_1849And just like that, my whole life is different. By being the same. Somehow I thought that the decision to prepare for retreat, to someday do a long retreat, would instantaneously catapult my days and thoughts into a more enlightened form. I thought that something important and tangible would change. I think I thought life would get easier. That making a big choice would somehow get me out of making all the little hard choices that fill up a day.

Read or draw? Meditate in a rush before dinner or sleepily after dinner? Write a blog post or answer e-mails? Start learning Tibetan or start a new art series? Shredded carrots or beets with lunch?

These questions don’t go away. They seem small and silly written out, but they tend to be enormous and weighty in the course of day. I was so hoping that settling on a big important goal would get me out of these kinds of questions, of the business of everyday life. But the thing about Dharma, the thing about masters, is that all they ever do is throw you back into the business of life. Because life is where transformation happens. Even though retreat often seems like a method of stepping out of life for a while, it’s actually the opposite. In retreat, you spend nearly all day meditating, which to me means watching my brain argue with itself until the futility becomes apparent. Then, calm starts to arise on its own.

The business of life is no different. Watching myself fight out these questions until I learn to ask them more peacefully. When I stop and think about it, nothing seems more sensible than that preparation for retreat comprises the same activity as the rest of life.  Make art; make food; study Dharma; meditate; be a person in the world with other people. Try to be patient. Try to be kind.

The brownies I made for a friend whose ship is taking him away from France and back to the US, and eventually to India. Transition times, even when transition means coming to terms with life staying the same, necessitate a bit of comfort food to offer the finest thread of stability when all else becomes fluid. If you have any childhood brownie memories, these are likely to be the perfect fit. They are chewy and dense and rich, almost veering toward underbaked even when fully done, but without hitting that mouth-glued-together effect that causes some brownie recipes to flounder. Also, they have the crackliest of crackly tops. And finally, they are ridiculously simple to make, practically the most basic recipe I’ve ever used and definitely the best so far.

Recipe follows…

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