Sunday, August 2, 2009

Lemon Tarts

Lemon Tarts

I really learned to cook when I spent a year at the International Academy for Continuous Education, the Gurdjieff Fourth Way School in the Cotswolds of England. We had over 100 people to cook for at every meal and, often on weekends, there were many guests. We were divided into three groups. Every third day one of the groups had the duties of running the enormous household and grounds of the 16th century stone manor house, animals, and gardens. Within each group, we were assigned tasks for that day. These were rotated around the thirty, or so, students in our group so that, at some time, everyone had a chance to do everything. It did not matter if you had never done the task before or even if you were totally incompetent and hated the thought of it. That was perfect for doing the inner work and not becoming a slave to our likes and dislikes. We stretched our perceived limitations beyond anything we could have fathomed.

I found myself being the Chief Cook on this particular day, which meant that I was in charge of the kitchen and the assistant cooks for all three meals and afternoon tea. The menus had been pre-set and all the ingredients were available. All went well and it was fairly uneventful until dinner. I had to make over 100 individual lemon tarts. It was a disaster! I couldn’t get the consistency of the pie dough right. Either it was too moist and sticky or too dry and crumbly. It wouldn’t roll out so that I could cut nice little rounds to fit into the cups. None of the other people had a clue, either. Finally, as time was getting very tight before I had to get the whole dinner up to the dining room to be served, I resorted to the only thing I could think of. I took bits of pie dough and pressed them into the cups of the muffin tins. Then I filled them with the lemon goo that we had prepared, baked them and voila! Lemon Tarts. Breathing a sigh of relief, dinner was served on time.

Now, the dining room in this mansion, Sherborne, was not your usual dining room. It was about 1,200 square feet of wooden floor and wainscoting panels. The walls were hung with portraits of all the royals that had inhabited this manor house since the famous architect, Christopher Wren, had first built it in Elizabethan times. (It had a fire at one point and had been rebuilt). They were hung almost to the top of the 20 foot ceiling. The room was filled with long tables to accommodate everyone. Along one side, by the windows, were three tables in a row. The middle one was the head table. At the head of the head table was the place of John G. Bennett, the director of the school. He was an imposing 6 foot 2 inch man with a shock of silver hair and piercing blue eyes. His energy, at 75 years, was more than most of the young students.

Those of us who had prepared the meal, sat across the room at the cooks table. Toward the end of dinner, Mr. B. got up and strode across the room to our table. In his booming voice, he demanded to know who the head cook was. I was terrified and tried to shrink to all of two inches. Timidly, I answered that I was, fully expecting to be reduced to a pulp, quivering like Jello on the floor.

“Those are the best lemon tarts I ever had”, he proclaimed and left the hall.

You could have scraped me up with a spatula. I understand now that he was referring to the energy that I had put into the tarts because of being on the edge, as I had been. I had to be creative, to be focused, to be coordinated, and to pull my team together. Most of all, I had to be present in the moment.

These invaluable lessons abounded in this monastery school. I am forever grateful for the time that I spent there, intense as it was. And now, I make a really good pie crust.

Prema Rose

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