Quest for Cheese

Man cannot live by bread alone. There must also be a beverage. —the Bible, or Woody Allen, or something

Attention: This post is hardly politically incorrect at all, for which I apologize. I suppose I could be viewed as racist and white supremacist for poking fun at Asians who don’t understand western food, so there is that.

     I used to be a vegetarian, many years ago before I became a monk. (I started eating meat again in central Burma, when during the driest dry seasons when the crops would fail my diet consisted mainly of chewy pink rice, pork, and extremely cheap badass cookies.) Also, as a bachelor layperson I fed heavily on sandwiches, because they required little or no cooking, and likewise for dishwashing. I’d cut cheese, spread butter or mayonnaise or whatever, then wipe off the knife and put it back in the drawer. It was a way of life.

     Then, as I said, I became a Buddhist monk and moved to rural central Burma, and began eating rice pretty much every day. I also occasionally ate amazingly grotesque glop, including little frogs, frog eggs, monitor lizard, a multitude of whole minnows and other assorted tropical fish, fried insects including “crater bugs,” and pretty much every edible part of a pig, including the brains and spleen. (I had been eating pig brains for so long before finding out what they really were that it was too late to be grossed out by it.) Also, maybe even more disgusting than the preceding, I ate so many bamboo shoots that I never want to see bamboo shoots ever again (though I probably will).

     I gradually developed a system for surviving the onslaught of rice, let alone the bamboo shoots. I targeted specifically on any fried things I got, like fried gourd, eggplant, (chickpea) tofu, mung bean fritters, etc., and also picked out any noodles that landed in my bowl. Furthermore, nice Burmese village people, knowing me to be a westerner of course, occasionally tried to offer me western food…which usually amounted to slices of cheap white bread. I’d pick out fried eggs especially, of which I’d usually get several, and make fried egg sandwiches. Sometimes I’d get enough of this kind of stuff that I didn’t eat any rice at all that day.

     The thing is, and this is a key factor of the point I’m gradually working up to, that people in the rice-eating regions of Asia really do not understand bread very well. They understand that western people eat bread, but then incorrectly assume that it’s supposed to be some kind of dessert food, like unflavored cake. A lot of the time I would get bread in my bowl that was useless for egg sandwiches because it had been covered with strawberry jam; and oftentimes even if it had butter on it instead of jam, the nice person would still wreck it by sprinkling it liberally with sugar. (Sometimes I could brush off enough of the sugar that it could still be used for egg sandwiches though. Sweet egg sandwiches.) Once I was staying briefly at a meditation monastery in the city of Monywa, and an ancient Burmese nun came to visit me and told me with shining eyes that the following morning she would offer me bread and jam—her eyes lit up, and her voice underwent a little crescendo when she said those last two words, as though she were implying, “I know what you want, I know what you have been yearning for: bread and jam.” I snuck out the back way the next morning and somehow managed to avoid her. Even George Orwell criticized semisweet, crumbly Burmese bread in his novel Burmese Days, so it’s literally Orwellian. Even so, bad cheap bread can still be preferable to rice.

     Eventually, in moments of weakness when I would fall away from full ascetic rigor, I would explain sandwiches to some of my most devoted supporters. It was a kind of arcane secret knowledge that I conveyed to them. Once I explained the principle of peanut butter to a chief supporter in the town of Wun Dwin (Burmese for “Inside the Belly”), a high school teacher, and she didn’t bother to conceal her skepticism—she felt that grinding peanuts would produce peanut flour. Later she returned to me and admitted in tones of wonder that I was right, it did turn into a kind of spreadable paste. She even started getting me higher quality bread, which was still like white Wonder Bread in America, but at least it was an improvement.

     Some time later, not long before returning to America, in another moment of weakness I explained grilled cheese sandwiches to another chief supporter, a very sweet lady from the village of Lay Myay (“Four Soils”). Her family had some money, so she was able to buy cheese imported from places like New Zealand and Singapore, plus the Burmese Wonder Bread, and then she fried them over a fire, because in Lay Myay everyone cooks over a fire. The cheese was often the pre-sliced American processed cheese food stuff, but when that’s all you get, you eat it. Then some time after that, after Burma had opened up to the capitalist west, I found out that one could actually obtain mayonnaise in northwestern Burma. After that it was off to the races.

     So towards the end of my residence in Burma, I was getting famous enough and opulent enough that I didn’t have to eat much rice at all, and certainly not every day. I ate fried things, fruit, noodles, and an increasing amount of food involving actual bread. Then I came back to the USA to live at a Burmese monastery in California.

     I had been looking forward to eating real western food in America. I’ve discussed elsewhere my disillusionment at being fed by American New Age health foodies, with their aversion for wheat and passion for organic kale (to say nothing of “alkaline cleanses”), so I won’t rant about that a second time. Instead I’ll rant about the ironic fact that I have been required to eat more rice here in the western hemisphere than I ate when I lived in Asia. Now there is generally no longer the option of selectively targeting fried things and noodles, and picking out the fried eggs to eat with cheap white bread—I’ve been eating rice almost every day.

     It used to be if the other monks went out somewhere to an invitation and left me behind to guard the fort (or because they know I don’t like going out to house invitations much), then Burmese supporters would sometimes offer me what they consider to be standard western food, usually fast food hamburgers (which I didn’t eat even as a layman in America due to my previous vegetarianism). But if just one other Burmese monk stayed behind with me, the Burmese laypeople have usually been embarrassed not to offer rice and traditional Asian food. I have seen venerable Ukkamsa looking with dead eyes at a perfectly good pizza, pretty much like a cat would look at an orange, not recognizing it as actual food.

     But as I say, I have never liked white rice all that much. Fortunately for me, food has never been one of my major attachments. Also, because I’m more or less of an ascetic monk I consider it to be cheating, kind of, to ask for food that I like; generally I just accept whatever is put in front of me, within reason. When I was still in training for the monkhood one of my teachers instructed me to take the venerable Mahā Kassapa as a role model, particularly with regard to food, so I digress a bit in the next paragraph to show the radical food austerity encouraged by the Pali texts.

     According to the verses attributed to venerable Kassapa the Great in the Theragātha, and also elsewhere in the tradition, one day this great elder disciple of the Buddha was walking for alms in a certain town. A leprous beggar who was also walking the streets for alms happened to see Mahā Kassapa and was inspired by his serene, dignified demeanor, so he approached him and offered some of his own collected food to him. But when he was placing some food into Mahā Kassapa’s bowl with his hand, one of his fingertips broke off into the bowl also, because of the leprosy. Mahā Kassapa didn’t raise an eyebrow, didn’t show any reaction at all in fact, and quietly continued on his way without bothering to take out the fingertip. The leper, mortified by what had happened, followed him to see what he would do. After the venerable elder had received enough food for the day, he sat down under the city wall and began eating his food—and he didn’t even take the fingertip out of the bowl before he ate. He just moved it to one side, and ate his food as he did every other day. Anyway, this story demonstrates and recommends the radical indifference towards food (and pretty much everything else) of the ideal ascetic bhikkhu.

     Nevertheless, I finally started really burning out on rice a few months ago, and weird funny-smelling Chinese soup, and stewed eggplant goop, and “sour leaf,” and pig ears. (Lots of Burmese immigrants to America are Chinese/Burmese; they speak Burmese, and follow Burmese Buddhism, and were born and raised in Burmese culture, but still they are ethnically Chinese, or part Chinese, and still eat weird Chinese food in addition to the not-quite-as-weird Burmese stuff.) Hell, even the dessert is often Asian bean cake, that is, cakey things filled with sweetened brown bean paste, which is not so good, as you may imagine. But as I mentioned in a video I did with Brian Ruhe, the main problem was not so much with the food itself, which is edible at least, mostly healthy, and in plentiful supply; the problem was with the subjective aversion to the very idea that I should have to eat rice every goddamn day in America.

     I am blessed in that the venerable abbot here actually likes me, and has become aware of my feeble struggles with Asian food. The Burmese monks have learned to understand American peanut butter to some extent, so for months I received, more often than not, at the venerable abbot’s instruction, one peanut butter sandwich along with the rice and goo at my daily meal. As you may well imagine, this has eventually resulted in me starting to burn out on peanut butter every day.

     As I’ve already mentioned, I have ranted about the earlier stages of this food issue on one of my videos with Brian Ruhe, bless his heart; and afterwards it inspired a number of generous western people to contact me with offers of sending me western food, or rather of having it delivered. (Because, I assume, of two decades living in Burmese forests, I naively retained an obsolete, 20th-century conception of sending food: I had this idea of actually putting groceries into a box and mailing it. But now, of course, the thing to do is make a phone call and have the food delivered from some local place.) I have received several magnificent offers of pizza, but the trouble with that is that most pizza places don’t open until 11:00am, and I’m supposed to be finished eating by midday. Also sometimes the gate is closed and unexpected delivery vehicles can’t get into the monastery compound. Anyhow, all that is academic at present because of the genetically engineered Chinese pestilence spread over the land and the subsequent lockdown of California.

     One person thousands of miles away had delivered unto me a magnificent block of cheese along with other non-Asian food, so I was able to instruct a few Burmese laypeople about cheese sandwiches, including a few basics like the plain fact that pre-sliced processed American cheese food stuff is grossly inferior to a block of Cheddar. Recently a designated monastery attendant was going to buy groceries and asked me to request anything I wanted; I requested a block of medium Cheddar cheese, which the Burmese guy apparently didn’t understand any more than if I had asked for gnocchi and pesto. He came back empty handed because, naturally, he went not to Safeway but to an Asian grocery store, which didn’t have Cheddar cheese.

     Just the other day when the refrigerator door was open I saw, miraculously, that there is actually butter in there. Real butter. How it got there I don’t know, since the Burmese use butter as seldom (approximately never) as they do cheese. Maybe it was sent on my behalf, I dunno. So I tried at lunch to explain to the venerable abbot about butter dishes: how most Americans have butter on a dish on the table. He said we have that, and thought I meant that I wanted a cube of cold butter. I said no, it’s a dish that we need FOR the butter. He said we have that, and instructed a layperson to fish out a plastic tub of some sort of margarine. I said no, a dish, a special kind of butter dish with a cover, because cold butter right out of the fridge is almost as hard as wax and can’t be spread on bread, and the cover is to keep insects or whatever off of it.

     He had never heard of such a thing, but he says he’ll work on it.

typical food at a Burmese truck stop: the dead birds are probably quails,
the stuff on the left is fritters made of whole unshelled shrimps, and the
yellow things at the top are some kind of skewered bird ovaries



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