The Monastery Cookbook

by Cheri Huber

Published by Keep It Simple Books

236 pages, 2003



A Monk's Way

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


In form, The Monastery Cookbook is reminiscent of such classics as The Moosewood Cookbook and Alicia Bay Laurel's Living on the Earth. Those books, like this one, had a straight-from-the-commune roughness about them. Handlettered, crudely printed but lovingly crafted.

Both of those titles had reason for their roughness. They came out of the hippy community of the 1970s. Making the books in small quantities and by hand served two purposes: it allowed for inexpensive production and it gave the authors the opportunity to remain outside of the Establishment, as desired.

The Monastery Cookbook has, of course, no such excuses. When every monastery worth its prayer rugs now has at least one PC, handlettering has become an affectation. It sends a message: look how homespun we are. Look how establishment we're not. We could have used desktop publishing like everyone else, but we opted instead to do it all by hand. Except that, on closer inspection, this impression isn't what it appears to be: the "handlettering" is indeed a font, the desktop publishing a fact and nothing is what it appears to be. A bit of sleight of hand without apparent reason.

All of this is quite unfortunate because, aside from the questionable preproduction methods, The Monastery Cookbook is a good and useful book. Were you, for instance, to suddenly opt for a vegetarian lifestyle, you could do worse than choosing this volume as your only reference: at least, to begin with.

The Monastery Cookbook covers all the bases, and it does it in an interesting way with lots of helpful anecdotes to contribute to your understanding of the vegetarian lifestyle and way of thinking. Following the recipes, there's no chance of going hungry: they're both solid and diverse. Eastern classics like Mjeddrah and Yellow Dal are interspersed with interpretations of European and American favorites like Pizza, Macaroni and Cheese, Sloppy Joes, Cinnamon Buns and Vichyssoise. Starters, soups, salads, main courses and desserts are all well covered, as well as a section on baking yeast bread that includes quite a lot of good advice.

One thing that The Monastery Cookbook understands and does a good job of sharing are the necessary principles of vegetarian cooking. Now, obviously, different vegetarians will take different paths to get to roughly the same place, but The Monastery Cookbook covers the nuts and bolts of the techniques that will get the results you want, regardless of the physical or philosophical reasons you opted for a vegetarian lifestyle. For example, the How To section covers cooking without oils and butter (not as easy as it sounds, by the way), how to substitute for eggs and dairy products, the basics of cooking with tofu, how to thicken liquids and other essential vegetarian kitchen techniques.

The recipes in The Monastery Cookbook are interspersed with stories written by the monks at the Zen Monastery Practice Center in Murphys, California, that is the monastery in question. All of the compositions are food-related, yet illuminate -- in often humorous and touching terms -- the challenges facing and joys offered up to the contemporary monk. (It's not all silence and tonsuring anymore.)

All in all, The Monastery Cookbook is an excellent addition to the cookbook shelf. The recipes here are diverse and easy-to-follow. Both vegetarians and those just looking for a more healthy approach to food will benefit from the book. | October 2003


Adrian Marks is a January Magazine contributing editor.