Hare Krishna cooking: Secret recipes exposed!
Andrew Leese, whose shaved head seems to project a fetal glow, hovers dotingly over the long, gangly carrots, peeler clenched in hand to strip them down to their naked essence.
Along with the carrots, giant heads of lettuce and cans of tomatoes and peaches clutter the counter space in Leese’s upscale home in Greensboro’s far northeastern exurbs off of Horse Pen Creek Road. Some of the cooking ingredients and utensils are also shoved in with bills and newsletters on the narrow divider between kitchen and living room. Relaxing new age vocal music plays from a portable CD player.
The carrots will be processed through a mechanical shredder and mixed with chopped lettuce to be served as a salad in two aluminum trays. A thick, tangy vegetarian chili is burbling in a pot on the stovetop. The pungent smell of whole wheat bread wafts from the oven as the yeast works its alchemy.
Leese, a 40-year-old Englishman, will throw together a quick peach cobbler before the afternoon is over. He’ll also whip up two homemade salad dressings ‘— creamy almond and avocado ‘— in his blender. To top it off, the meal will be served with cold wildberry zinger tea.
Once a cook at the now-closed Govinda’s restaurant on Tate Street, Leese is now the sole practitioner of Hare Krishna cuisine in Greensboro. Once a week, every Tuesday evening, he lays out a feast for anyone who wants to partake at St. Mary’s House, an Episcopal church on Walker Avenue that serves the UNCG college community and its surrounding neighborhoods.
Food plays a vital role in Hare Krishna, a religious movement founded in the United States by AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1966.
‘“All the food that is prepared is going to be offered to the deity Krishna,’” Leese says. ‘“Just as you would cook very special food for a loved one, this food is prepared with love and devotion. That’s what’s behind the whole philosophy of why we do food distribution: by eating this food, unknowingly their heart changes.’”
Hare Krishnas never taste food before it’s offered to Krishna, he says. He will literally make up a plate of food and set it out for the deity before he carts the feast down to Walker Avenue.
‘“It’s not like we’re trying to convert people to be Hare Krishnas,’” Leese adds. ‘“We would like people to become more spiritually minded. Becoming a vegetarian would be a good first step.’”
The fact that Hare Krishnas seek to distribute their food beyond the traditional social outreach target of street people and wayward youth has led some recipients to suspect a sinister hidden agenda advanced perhaps by the injection of a secret mind-control agent in the food.
Leese tackles the issue head-on without prompting.
‘“There was this lady one time who asked: ‘Do you put something special in your food? Because I feel so peaceful afterwards,”” he says. ‘“She thought it was saltpeter.’”
Saltpeter, a substance used to make gunpowder, is known to suppress the male sex drive if ingested. Soldiers, convicts and other inmates of all-male institutional settings have long alleged that the stuff was put in their food to keep them under control.
There are a few cooking practices particular to Hare Krishna, but it’s really the cook and not the cooking that matters in the equation.
The food is all vegetarian because Hare Krishnas don’t believe in killing animals. Hare Krishna cooking is often Indian, by virtue of the founder of the religion being born there and the fact that the Indian diet has a strong vegetarian base. But Leese’s standard fare of chili, salad and whole wheat bread also qualifies as Hare Krishna cooking.
One rule is no onions and garlic.
‘“Onions and garlic increase the passions,’” Leese says. ‘“If you notice, in countries where people eat a lot of onions and garlic, like the Latin countries, people are very passionate.’”
Passion and desire are to be avoided because they lead to suffering, he explains in a somewhat dour but friendly voice. Hare Krishna emphasizes detachment from material reality to allow one to become closer to God.
As a substitute to onions and garlic, Leese sprinkles a little asoefetida powder in the chili. Asoefetida, or hing, comes from a the sap of a tropical tree in India, according to my friend Vimala, an excellent cook of Keralan cuisine in Chapel Hill.
Leese also uses textured vegetable protein, which gives the chili a little heft.
‘“This is karma-free food,’” he says. ‘“Karma is what’s keeping us in the world. Even if it’s good karma. There are people who do a lot of charity work so in the next life they come back very beautiful or very wealthy. If you have no karma you go to the spiritual realm. The only real suffering is to be separated from God.’”
At 6 p.m. he’s beaming behind a table of food at St. Mary’s House as he loads up plates for a motley collection of street people, college students and punk rockers who accept the food with gratitude.
Merritt Basey, 51, a friend of Leese’s, expresses effusive praise.
‘“With Andrew’s food, because it’s been blessed and it’s been made with love and devotion, it’s had a profound effect on my health,’” she says. ‘“He would like to see a resurgence in cooking at home. Your emotional take on life while you’re cooking goes into the food.’”
Around the tables of this chow hall there’s no squabbling or tension, no grumbling about the quality of the fare, just contented eating and light conversation.
The meal gives one a satisfied feeling of moderation. The food is pleasing, but not heavy. The chili is savory, but not spicy. The peach cobbler ‘— a mixture of margarine, flour, oats, sugar and date syrup poured over canned peaches ‘— has a dry kind of granola taste that is sweet without being extravagant. The food settles evenly in the stomach.
After the meal, Eugene Teague, a 39-year-old dishwasher by trade, nods off sitting upright on a couch. College students and thrift-store fashionistas flirt on the church’s porch or lay on the grassy slope of its front yard. Leese, his wife and two friends chat quietly at a table in the back of the sanctuary.
A pacific scene prevails, but the spiritual effects of the meal are difficult to ascertain.
‘“I like it. I always donate money,’” says John Sanford, a UNCG student. ‘“I feel bad because I suppose they want people to become more spiritual. It’s missionary work, but they don’t push it on you.’”
His friend Samantha Murphy, also a student at UNCG, adds: ‘“Which is appreciated.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org