Tasting the Renaissance

Picture a time long ago, in the late 15th century, when Europe was emerging from the darkness of the Middle Ages into a new dawn of intellectualism, art, music, philosophy. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that what was happening in Europe was an awakening of consciousness, an inquiry into the nature and value of the individual, an inquiry that had not been raised before. And perhaps it can be said that it was the quest for the answer to this inquiry which inspired the prolific innovation in all areas of human thought and expression which would come to be known as the Renaissance. What many students of the European history may not realize is that India was experiencing its own Renaissance during that same time period. In fact, as far as my lay degree in history goes, there are many societal parallels to be drawn.

First let's take a brief look back at the conditions of this cultural night, for only then can we appreciate the miracle that is the dawn. In both India and Europe during the Middle Ages, there existed strong class divisions between the wealthy elite and the impoverished masses. The church was the de facto governing authority, and salvation administered only by the whims of the clergy, who may or may not be inclined to grant this "salvation" from the misery of the world based on how handsomely the petitioner was willing to pay for it.

(photo medievalists.net)

Similarly, in India the brahmanas, or priests, had developed a monopoly on religion, staking the claim that deliverance from the world was available only to those in the brahmana class. The rest of the populace could only hope to one day become elevated to the coveted stature of a priest over many lifetimes, through the process of reincarnation. The Vedic system of varna-ashrama, a system of dividing society into professions and duties that was determined by inclination, had degraded into the caste system. Whereas the varna-ashram system was viewed as a cooperative system, in which all divisions were equally important and necessary for the harmonious progression of society; the caste system was hierarchical and inflexible, confining members of society to positions of fortune or squalor, based solely on birth. Needless to say, in such an environment there was no scope for individual initiative nor upward mobility, concepts that today are so deeply ingrained in our modern psyche that they we do not even question that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are "inalienable rights" for all.

So how was it that humanity emerged from this darkness of thought into the daylight of social and spiritual enlightenment? As with all transformations, there is a gradual process, a societal evolution, begun, often at great personal sacrifice, by a few visionary people. One such personality is Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who appeared at this time of year in 1486 in Bengal, India. He was born into an aristocratic brahmana family. A child prodigy, Mahaprabhu, then known as Nimai, quickly mastered the various branches of Vedic knowledge, and at a young age became a teacher in his own right. While he was teaching, he happened to encounter Ishvara Puri, an exalted saint in the Vaishnava bhakti (yoga of love and service to God) tradition.

He took initiation from Ishvara Puri into the practice of bhakti, specifically the ancient science of connecting to God via mantra meditation. Seeming to undergo a profound spiritual transformation, from that time on, Caitanya Mahaprabhu manifested an absorption in devotion to Lord Krishna. He widely taught the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra as a means of self-realization and prayer to God, that was entirely independent of one's material background or qualification. This sort of religious social reform turned out to be quite bad for business, from the priests' point of view. If the masses were not dependent on their brahminical sacrifices for elevation in life, how would they support themselves? What would happen to their elite position and comfortable situation if the masses were to rise up, to become spiritually and materially free from oppression? (Hmm... sounds like a current paranoia held by some...) To Be Continued... "Wait! Are you just going to leave us hanging," you might ask. Well yes... for now, but only because the history and adventures of the bhakti movement in India and beyond are too numerous and vast to fit it into this one newsletter. Let me just say that because bhakti yoga is now known and practiced worldwide, I have symbolically chosen an international menu in celebration.

This Week's Menu:

Entree #1 - Tomato Toor Dal In this week's Culinary United Nations, we have India represented by this light, savory, and slightly tangy dal. I remember looking up toor dal once, curious about its nutritional profile. I actually don't remember any factoids from that research, other than the fact that toor dal is the most widely used lentil in many parts of India. It is so widely used that if you say "dal" without specifying which kind, people will assume you mean toor dal. So what is it about the humble pigeon pea that makes it so widely loved? Being drought resistant, it is an easy crop to grow in a variety of climates. And as far as us cooks are concerned, toor dal scores points because it is a relatively quick-cooking bean with a delightful flavor. *GF, soy-free

(photo steamingpot.com)

Entree #2 - Mexican Black Bean Soup I was surprised at how long it has been since we have last made this soup. It has all the distinctive flavors of Mexican cooking - sweet and hot peppers, corn, tomatoes, frijoles negros, cilantro, and best of all, lime! Adding fresh lime on top of all those other succulent flavors, is like a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds and pouring out onto the verdant landscape below, thus transforming the already beautiful scenery into something heavenly. There I go again, waxing poetic about my food... This is all to say - don't miss this dang good soup! *GF, soy-free

Entree #3 - Curried Cauliflower & Chickpea Stew I love this recipe and had made it several times, with very good results. Then there came a time when I made a BIG mistake (think cayenne in place of curry...), and I kind of put the whole recipe away for about a year. Don't think that I don't make mistakes in the kitchen. Mine are probably just more public and costly than yours are. However, because this week's theme is international cuisine and this seems to me to be an Indian-ish fusion of flavors, rather than a straight up Indian curry, it seemed appropriate. In a larger sense, this dish is also representative to me of putting aside shame and discouragement and moving forward, with hope in my heart and a lesson learned. *GF, soy-free

(photo savoringthethyme.com)

Side Dishes: Brown Rice - $1/serving (1 cup) Brown Rice with Peas & Almonds - $2.50/serving (1 cup) This is a flavorful pilaf made with slivered almonds, green peas, & the 3 "c's" - cinnamon, cardamom, & cloves. Hearty enough to serve as a stand-alone meal or a companion/side dish, this rice would pair especially well with the Cauliflower Curry. *GF, soy-free

(photo marthastewart.com)

Savory Corn & Pepper Muffins -$2/ea. or 3/$5. It has been a long time, a way too-long time since we made these delicious, chock-full-of-real-veggies, melt-in-your-mouth, Southwestern corn muffins. Although they are so tasty that they pair with just about anything, these little corn muffins pair best with the Mexican black bean soup. The corn, the peppers, the cilantro! ... I think I hear the desert calling me for dinner. *GF, soy-free

(photo browneyedbaker.com)

Black Bean Brownies - $3/ea. or 2/$5. I have an archive of photos and recipes, and sometimes when I go diving in there for one thing, I find so many appealing reminders of past recipes. These brownies are one such retrieval from the archives. On many a Sunday when I was pulling photos from the archives for the newsletter, I would pass by this photo, telling the brownies to just hold on another week. Now their time has come, so don't wait to sink your teeth into one of these soft, smooth, delectable bites of brownie heaven!*GF, soy-free

(photo minimalistbaker.com)

#awakening #Renaissance #brahmanas #varnaashrama #caste #SriChaitanyaMahaprabhu #bhakti #LordKrishna #TomatoToorDal #pigeonpea #MexicanBlackBeanSoup #sweetpeppers #hotpeppers #corn #tomatoes #blackbeans #cilantro #lime #CurriedCauliflowerChickpeaStew #brownrice #BrownRicewithPeasAlmonds #pilaf #sliveredalmonds #greenpeas #cinnamon #cardamom #cloves #SavoryCornPepperMuffins #BlackBeanBrownies

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