The Story of Pickle

Note: Let truth guide you, not us. Our humble disclaimer.

Many foods parade past my table during meal time. There are at least four courses, often six, and I am surprised everyone is not fat at the monastery. Most meals have the feel of dim sum, the Chinese brunch where an endless stream of waiters tempt you with little delicacies. The portions at the monastery are not so small, however, and the presentation is inelegant; our servers arrive at each plate and slop down a heaping scoop of whatever is in their food bucket.

Breakfast is self-serve, but lunch and dinner is a contest of negation. When a server visits your plate, you must accept or reject the offering. Then reject it a second time when they come back for seconds.

All meals start with a token sweet, usually fresh fruit, and include the Indian staples of rice, chapati and lentil soup. There’s usually a thick curry or two with potatoes, peas, carrots or other vegetables, and a heavily spiced vegetable dish with a hero such as cauliflower or spinach. Cottage cheese chunks the size of hors d’oeuvre show up sometimes as a protein in the curry, as does fried tofu. A thick curd cools down the taste buds, and a sweet but flammable chutney heats them back up again near the end of the meal. Dessert always includes a milky and deliciously sweet rice or poppy seed pudding and a traditional Indian dessert such as the syrupy deep-fried batter, jalebi.

The servers learn our preferences. One man takes rice but no chapati. Another never eats bananas. A third has his poppy seed pudding poured into the hot milk offered at dinner. The wait staff has trouble predicting my preferences, though, because they don’t stay the same. My preferences expand.

The story of pickle is a case in point.

For several weeks I avoided the pickled fruit and vegetable concoction eaten widely in India and known simply as “pickle.” Every visit I tried pickle, and every visit I struggled with its aggressive spiciness and pungency. So the first few weeks at the monastery I didn’t even try pickle; wait staff knew I had no interest in the food.

Preferences keep me small and make my life miserable, however. If I want something and don’t get it, on some level I am not content. If I act in the service of my preferences, on some level I am a slave to those preferences. If I take sides by not enjoying all aspects of the world, implicitly I am moving away from Oneness by reinforcing the idea that everything is not one. Disliking pickle was not an option.

So I tried pickle again. And again I hated it.

Preferences may injure our happiness, but they certainly exist. Even if I am part of the larger whole, a wave temporarily giving shape to the ocean, I still have particular characteristics while embodied in form. Each wave has shape and velocity, and likewise each person has different taste bud receptivity, touch sensitivity, mental acuity, et cetera. From this body comes differences and limitations, and from my body came a reasonable bias against pickle. Pickle just didn’t agree with my tongue.

Still I did not give up on pickle. Another couple weeks passed without it, but I refused to accept that I could not like pickle. I just didn’t know how to like it yet; maybe I never would spoon it on ice crème like fudge, but I needed to appreciate it. Pickle could not keep me from my higher nature. Pickle could not be that one thing I did not accept, did not enjoy, did not embrace.

I discovered many years ago that moving beyond preference requires love. Love does not ask anything, it accepts and identifies with the object of devotion. Certainly sugar excites my taste buds more than bran flakes, but I appreciate bran flakes for its role, too; bran plays a foundational role in my overall vitality. Once I have discovered the joy of bran, I will accept it as a substitute the way a parent leaves one adult daughter to visit another. Sure, objectively my sweet fix will be better served by sugar. But sweet is not a necessity, and few things are; I will enjoy bran today and wait for sugar another meal. Let me not push away bran because it is not sugar.

The certainty that preference is a failure of love helped me eventually overcome my pickle dislike. It wasn’t a question of if I would overcome my aversion, it was a question of when. I kept approaching pickle when I could, sure that one day I would love that little preserve others enjoyed with such relish.

Last week I finally did. In a creative mood and inspired by a coworker with a mountain of the stuff on his plate, I mixed pickle with lentil soup. The bland soup came alive, renewed with flavor and sporting a faint Mexican accent. My impression of the food changed completely in a single moment. Pickle became a star.

Now I understand pickle. Now I embrace even more of the food universe.

This is how I expand as a person, and how I enjoy and identify with everything around me. Either I like something or I look forward to liking it. At first, I didn’t like much of the food at the monastery. Now there is very little I don’t like. With any luck, soon I will like everything.

Do you hear that, brinjal? I’m coming for you.


  1. by Mae

    On January 28, 2012

    As a person, you definitely are growthful. You are difficult to predict because you change more rapidly relative to most people.

  2. by Eli

    On February 2, 2012

    Reminds me of my experience with kimchi in South Korea and Gamelost cheese in Norway (ancient stinky cheese that’s been around since the Vikings). I definitely learned to like both and grew from it. Fermented foods are often the ones you need to “develop a taste” for but can become the tastiest. Still, I don’t think there’s anything wrong if you really don’t like a food: allergies exist too after all!

  3. by Peter Kowalke

    On February 3, 2012

    In the case of allergies, sure. We also shouldn’t ingest lots of mercury. That is different than preference, though.

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