May 19, 2008

Mary Taylor’s EcoKitchen: New! Improved?

You buy a latté, and a shiny new quarter appears in the change, catching your attention before tossing it into the tip jar. You snap on a new pair of skis, see an exotic fruit at the farmers’ market or sit in a brand spanking new car, and it feels good. There’s just something about new that’s appealing. It’s fresh, it’s clean, it’s simple and full of potential.

Advertisements for virtually every product and service available inform us that new is where it’s at. And each day we’re given subtle (and not-so-subtle) reminders of the next opportunity to wipe the slate clean and begin anew. Whether it’s a chance encounter with a shiny quarter or the arrival of spring, there are constant reminders that new (and better?) is there for the taking.

For those of us who love to cook and eat, newness comes with the arrival of an expanded selection of produce in local markets. Offering our respects to the potatoes, squash and onions that got us through winter, we heave a sigh of relief and stop pretending that another round of parsnip stew sounds appealing. That first taste of tender baby spinach leaves tossed in vinaigrette, an asparagus risotto or fresh mint and cucumber soup is enough to jolt us out of fall and winter’s culinary doldrums. It’s living proof that new is better, providing a spark to our creative culinary flame.

But there is a danger that we become seduced by the notion that new is categorically superior to what is familiar. Whether in the kitchen or in life, the sex appeal of new can cause us to impulsively jump ship, to give up on what has long served us well and to move ahead to the flashy realm of the latest, greatest trend. This happens all the time with regard to food and eating. We tire of our old recipes and decide they’re solely to blame for our lethargy or ill health, so we toss them all out for the latest fad diet. We have the revelation that it’s our old fashioned stove that makes us hate cooking, so we buy a state-of-the-art commercial range to solve the problem—and cook even less because our pots and pans don’t fit. Or we load up the cart with an exciting array of fresh vegetables we know we should eat, but never do, and then watch over the next few weeks as they metamorphose into unrecognizable shapes in the back of the refrigerator.

There is something appealing—and wholesome—about new, but newness for its own sake is little more than distraction. From a classic yogic perspective the gleaming freshness of new is simply a by-product of a concentrated, liberated mind. When we are fully present, each perception and the sensory experience of each object (baby spinach, for example) is unique, because it is observed in a context exclusive to that particular moment. In other wods, if we’re paying attention, everything is vividly fresh. Pursuing potential by searching for something new is far less interesting than experiencing each new moment fully.

This yogic perspective is reflected in classic Indian arts like cooking. The goal is not innovation. Instead, the consummate classic Indian chef is one who captures the balance of flavors. Here in our modern fusion culture we’re enticed to live on the edge, to try every imaginable new taste combination as a sign of our culinary prowess. While substituting aromatic basmati rice for plain white rice in a South Indian dish might make sense to us, the Indian chef might find it a distraction. Being with what is may not be as boring as you think.

So here we are with the departure of another winter, another reminder that what’s new is at our fingertips. It’s an ideal time to step back, take a deep breath of fresh air and…pause. Reflect on the balance that lies between what’s tried and true and what’s new, in the kitchen as elsewhere. Notice when old habits might benefit from change and observe the urge to toss out the old simply for the brittle excitement of something new.

MARY TAYLOR is an avid student of yoga and the gastronomic arts, having studied in India and France. The author of three cookbooks and co-author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality, Mary teaches workshops and seminars on food, eating and yoga. She is the director of The Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado.

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