Mindful Mastications

by Ari LeVaux

There is a hot cast iron pan on the table. In the pan: parsley-scrambled eggs, fried elk with shallot and garlic, and a warm corn tortilla.

Also on the table, within reach, are the standard breakfast accoutrements: a cup of hot coffee, jars of homemade salsa and pickled peppers, a jar of fake mayonnaise, reading material.

The danger here is overloading the tortilla to the point that it becomes unmanageable. After a preliminary sip of coffee, I spread a layer of mayonnaise on a blank tortilla. Into this layer of crème, pieces of meat, garlic, and shallot are placed, like bricks in mortar.

Then I add a layer of eggs, bright yellow with white swirls and parsley speckles, and spoon salsa on top.

One hand holds the breakfast taco. The other hand delivers another preliminary sip of coffee. Finally, after scanning a few lines of a seed catalog that just arrived in the mail – “Saffron shallot seed: Bright copper skin with pale yellow interior. Suitable for long storage, through spring…” – I take a bite. The puffy eggs, lusty flesh, savory garlic bits, and creamy mayo hit my tongue first, quickly joined by the salsa, acidic and fragrant, which mixes with the savory grease.

At this point I begin sipping coffee, much faster than before, and I’m leaning forward so the juices dripping from my half-eaten taco land in the pan.

Please don’t talk to me when I’m doing this. I’m concentrating, and I don’t want to rush-chew and prematurely swallow in order to respond.

I’m typically a social eater, a fan of table talk and the ritual of breaking bread in good company. It takes a village to feed a village, and the roots of eating together run deep. But sometimes I just want to fly solo with my big greasy breakfast.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, has made a case for using everyday moments and chores, like washing dishes or waiting at a red light, to focus your consciousness on the present moment. He calls this “mindfulness.”

Eating, he once explained in a talk at a church, is also an opportunity for mindfulness.

“Each morsel of food is an ambassador from the cosmos. Some of us, while looking at a piece of carrot, can see the whole cosmos in it, can see the sunshine in it, can see the earth in it. When we pick up a piece of a vegetable, we look mindfully to really recognize the piece of food, the piece of carrot or string bean. When we chew it, we know what we are chewing.”

I have a friend who claims to have never farted, and one of the things to which she credits this feat is mindful chewing. Beyond its alleged flatulence-reducing properties, mindful chewing is also widely touted as a dieting technique. Chewing slowly, supposedly, makes you more aware of being full, and able to avoid overeating. It can be a way to extract as much pleasure as you can from your diet-sized portion.

I’m searching for information when I chew, like a dog sniffing the base of a tree. But unlike most dogs, who’d happily gulp down the most fragrant morsel in a single numb gulp, I masticate with feeling.

And part of that feeling comes from the stories behind the food.

Dr. Ruth, sexpert matriarch, says the brain is the biggest sex organ we have. I say it’s also the biggest taste bud. In both cases, the physical and emotional feelings are intertwined. It’s been famously demonstrated with wine, for example, that factors like vintage, price, and label can have more influence than flavor on the degree to which wines are better appreciated.

Some food stories are personal. I know certain details of my food’s history because I was there for some or all of the story. This story includes sun, dirt, wind, rain, and all the people who made that food happen.

Taking a moment to acknowledge the unseen journey of my food is a good exercise, and nice way of saying grace. And while I’m thankful to all the many sources from which my food comes, the flavors that give me the most pleasure are those I had a direct hand in bringing to the table.

My participation in the stories behind the food creates memories and images for me to meditate on while chewing mindfully. For example, memories of bringing home tomatoes, peppers, cilantro and onions from the farmers market. I had a nice interaction with the grower; I know the field where the produce was grown. This interaction and knowledge takes my food’s story beyond the local and into the personal.

If I process my vegetables into salsa and store it in jars for a year’s worth of breakfast, it gets even more personal. And if the salsa contains roasted green chiles I brought home from New Mexico during chile harvest last year, froze and then thawed, washed, chopped, and added to my salsa, it gets more personal still. More personal, more pleasurable.

Eggs from the chickens, elk from the woods, garlic and shallots from the garden, salsa from the pantry … a big reason why my breakfast tastes so good is that it’s so personal. More than just a meal, a big greasy breakfast is a way of life. It took me two years to make this breakfast – damn right it tastes good. •



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