The grounding joy of unwashed food

San Francisco felt foreign, even when I lived there. Knife-edge cliffs to the ocean, palm trees in the cold air, hill-top views of towers in the fog: a twisted, alien world. I worked hard trying to ground myself, to feel like I belonged. I read the history, I studied topo maps, I took long walks. And I lived, for a time, at a Soto Zen monastery in the Marin Headlands just north of the city across the Golden Gate.

I’d rise in predawn fog drip, and pad to the temple in the dark to sit, slowly waking to the space. We grew our own food, and afternoons were spent in the gardens, clearing winter brush to prep the fields for springtime planting. Life was quiet. Metaphors bloomed. We worked the land as we worked our selves: cleaning, tilling, digging, smoothing. At night, we ate in silence.

The food was terrible. Vegan gruel. Porridge and mush. I knew it was healthy, but something about it felt far from wholesome — blurry and desaturated, hippie Soylent. Eaten with fingernails still dirty from garden work, the food seemed divorced from its source. What is this? What was this? What happened?

I escaped. Shirking evening chores I hiked over the bluff to Muir Beach and a different sort of temple. The Pelican Inn is a little British pub at the elbow of Highway 1, where it hooks north toward Mt. Tam, and Oregon beyond. In the off season drizzle, the seats were empty, the windows dark, the fireplaces glowing. In Soto Zen, you sit with eyes open — the goal not to shut off reality but to acknowledge it, and merge with it. You’re not seeing and thinking, but you’re not not seeing and thinking. That’s easier said than done. A fireplace and a beer or two helps. I sat and drank and thought and didn’t think, and listened to the wind. I walked back through the garden and from the mist emerged an apparition: wilted dew-speckled beet tops, forgotten from the morning’s harvest. I pulled it from the cold ground: Soft, over-ripe, cool, and muddy. Reader, I ate it. And in its sweet metallic blood-rush of juice I tasted, finally, home.

That sweet crunch brought me back to where I feel most at one with it all — a cabin in the north-central Vermont woods — and to one memory in particular, of ducking through the electrified deer fence to eat carrots from my uncle’s garden. The beet brought me that comfort here, even on this violent foreign coast. With a bite, I belonged.

Environmental lawyers sometimes talk about the dirt-eating child. The idea is that laws can protect the average citizen, but should your kid dig up a mouthful of Superfund site, his hands are dirty; the EPA’s are clean. Not their fault. And so we raise our children afraid of the earth beneath their feet: pesticide-soaked lawns, or worse, au naturel, weedy and bee-covered. Shoes please.

But connecting with the earth means acknowledging your body as earthly; not a separate walled-off garden, but an ecosystem of its own, intertwined with the planet. As we learn more about the microbes in our guts, and appreciate the value of probiotics and living foods — fermenting, wild, fresh — this makes scientific, not just spiritual sense. At the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s 2016 conference, Dr. Barbara Utendorf talked about the power of a just-plucked peach: nutrient build-up stops as soon as fruit is picked, and fresh wild fruits have richer probiotic content than any supplement or pill.

Buddha nature in a beet. Zen priest, poet, and philosopher Dogen taught his students to treat grains of rice as if they were one’s own eyes. Our food is ourselves, and vice versa, warts and all. A well-washed carrot can taste as slimy slick as plastic wrap; a bit of dirt left on it can remind us that this was, once, earth — and so were we. Dust to dust.

I dare not preach the unwashed gospel. Do I order salads with dressing on the side, hold the rinse? No. But in my own backyard, I pick the radish, and I savor its loamy crunch. This, from here, I think, and it — and I — belong.