As you may know from my last post, Noah and I have left our sleepy, rain-soaked, Alaskan hideaway, and are on the road. When we deplaned in Seattle, life suddenly accelerated. Text messages, combat driving, rush hour traffic, social calendars, restaurant reservations, dress clothes, and pay parking suddenly filled our days. As did family and friends, phenomenal food, abundant art, Seahawks games, dodge ball games, sushi dinners in tatami rooms, and handmade tortelli with porcini mushrooms in truffle oil. I realized after a couple of years in Juneau that living in Alaska is like living in a different country, and leaving it meant a bit of culture shock in both welcome and challenging ways.
It feels like we’ve been unplugged for the last few years, and for a reluctant technophile like me, that hasn’t necessarily been unpleasant. Dinner conversation in Juneau revolves around bears, salmon, whales, eagles, and how to survive the weather. Dinner conversation in Seattle covers music, iPhones, art, Twitter, and food. It’s the city versus country cliché, and I seem driven somehow to straddle both worlds; perhaps, with one foot more heavily rooted in the countryside realm.
Midway through our stay, Noah and I traveled to Whidbey Island for an overnight retreat.
Food dovetails so seamlessly into so many experiences, connecting us to each other, connecting our days, and granting me a unifying thread in my writing. So it was with delight that I sat with my friend Kurt Hoelting at the Whidbey Institute for a day of mindfulness, which began with a handful of raisins.
Three raisins to be exact, and I’m guessing we spent about fifteen minutes eating them.
After a city week of continuous indulgence, a feast of flavors at our favorite old haunts and a few new ones, I found myself sitting quietly, with a small group of people, in a little sanctuary, actively doing nothing for a day. No place to go. No cell phones or emails. Nothing to achieve but nothing.
Kurt welcomed the group with a beautiful poem: Love after Love by Derek Walcott. Then, he passed around a cup of raisins, and told us each to take three raisins from the cup, and refrain from gobbling them up. Instead, we held them in our hand.
“Look at the raisins, like you’ve never seen a raisin before,” Kurt suggested. And I began to notice the wrinkled brown nubbins in my palm. There were actually a number of colors on each fruit, red-brown, purpley-grey, and dimples filled with a whitish film. I picked up the biggest raisin, and saw it with new eyes, an alien edible.
“Put the raisin up to your nose," Kurt guided us, "noticing how your arm moves your hand to your nose, with ease, without thinking, with effortless coordination, and inhale the scent of the raisin.”
The perfume filled my nostrils, like a glass of very old port. Sweet. Musky. Burnt sugar and vanilla and mineral soil. How had I never noticed the scent of a raisin?!
“Now put the raisin in your mouth,” Kurt said, “but don’t chew it up right away. Roll it around in your mouth. Feel the shape of it on your tongue.”
I sensed it’s softness, firmness, ridges, dimples. And when I was ready, I bit into it, feeling the skin break between my teeth, feeling the density of it’s dried pith, and most of all tasting the full explosive complexity of this ugly little fruit that I never really cared for. I had never thought about a raisin. If anything, I merely tolerated them.
I had been devouring my way through Seattle’s culinary Shangri-la, and I found my mind wondering what levels of flavor, texture, and aroma I had been missing out on. Not to say I didn’t appreciate all those wonderful meals (with gusto), but what might they have tasted like if given this kind of attention? What deeper level of richness could I bring to the experience of eating, just by slowing down, by paying closer attention?
Without haste, we moved on to the second raisin, this time keeping in mind how the raisin was made. What went into this little fruit? Earth. Water. Sun. A trellis for the vine to grow on. A hand to pick the grapes, and some way to dry them. A box to store them in, ship them in, sell them in. A truck to transport them on, and a driver to deliver them. A buyer. A shopping bag. And a hand to open the package with. This time, when I tasted the raisin, I uncovered mineral elements, flavors that went beyond my own personal experience and tiptoed onto the bigger picture. When I held an appreciation for the earth that grew the raisin, I could taste the terrior—or geography of the fruit. This was an even deeper level of paying attention.
Finally, with the third raisin, Kurt brought our attention to the little stem or hole on one end of the raisin, and asked us to think about what the raisin was attached to. My third raisin had a tiny peg of a stem, and it made me think of an umbilical cord. I pulled the stem from the raisin, and the hole it left made me think of a belly button.
“We are all connected somehow,” Kurt reminded us, and I thought about how each grape is connected to a stem, a stalk, a leaf, a root, the earth. Words like holistic and interconnected get thrown around a lot these days. It’s easy to forget their true meaning, to forget how to feel the connection we share as living organisms on this planet.
What an eye opening experience, all because of three humble little raisins. Before breaking for lunch Kurt said, “Let’s bring the spirit of the raisin into our experience of lunch today.”
The spirit of the raisin. I like that. It’s something I hope to carry with me from that day on Whidbey, and something I wanted to share with you. Happy Thanksgiving Food-G readers. May you bring the spirit of the raisin into your experience of your own Thanksgiving meal.