In the Kitchen with Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff Special Meals

Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff had many talents, but his ability to stimulate other people’s imaginations was the one that served him best.  His stories, allegories, music, dances and exotic meals were the magical tools which he used to provide those unsatisfied by their ordinary existence with a glimpse of something mysterious, a promise of a way towards a higher state of being and of experiencing reality.

In some way, he was the real-life Wizard of Oz.  A gifted man, an original and highly individuated one, but no wizard, except in the eyes of his followers. Did his teachings, the green tinted glasses attached to the eyes of his pupils, improve their life experience? Well, the answer to this question is beyond the scope of this blogpost.

Oz

However, after reading extensively on the subject of Gurdjieff, I am convinced that he possessed vast religious and esoteric knowledge. And, I do believe that in his youth he was a true spiritual seeker. It’s just that at one point in his life he decided that he had found all the answers and that it was time for him to start teaching others.  I am not convinced  that his Fourth Way was (is) the right way for spiritual growth, meaning that I doubt that his teaching techniques were beneficial to his followers. More on this subject in another post.

In this post I want to explore Gurdjieff’s use of food as a function of his teachings. He used different teaching methods at different periods of his activities but during the last period of his life, meals became an important component of his modus operandi.

It is important to compose a dish in its correctly blended elements as a composition of music or the colors in painting. Harmony in scale. Must have much knowledge to be a good cook. A culinary doctor.

G.I. Gurdjieff

A “culinary doctor”? What did he mean exactly? Was he referring to some special culinary knowledge? Was that knowledge related to some healing combination of the three types of food necessary for the nourishment of the three-brained system of the human being?

Now, for those of you not familiar with the concept of the “three-brained beings”, note that Gurdjieff believed that man was a machine, an unconscious automaton reacting impulsively to his external environment with the function of one of his three “brains”, the physical, mental and emotional.  According to Gurdjieff our three brains are invariably at odds with each other, and, it is precisely this inner disharmony of the functions of the human inner workings that cause the fragmentation of our psyches into many different “I”s. The sensation in the average person of a unified “I” is an illusion.

Gurdjieff held that the average man is unaware of his multiplicity, sleepwalking through his life. Only a man who has awaken and has struggled to integrate the functions of his three brains into one harmoniously working unity, is a real man. And, only a real man is able to perceive the terror of his situation, his fate, which is to fulfill the organic cosmic needs of nature. 

Gurdjieff’s cosmology proposes that the purpose of organic life on our planet is to provide the energy needed to sustain the Moon, and that energy is liberated through the process of death.  Once a man has recognised his fate, he could by the exertion of his will (the concept of intentional suffering) have a chance at developing a soul that could outlive the death of his physical body. (Note to readers: Please keep in mind that this is only a simple over-view of Gurdjieff’s system synthesised for the purposes of this post.)

Now let’s examine how Gurdjieff conceived of the nourishment of our three-brained system.

Mr. Gurdjieff next drew a scheme of the human body and compared it to a three-storied factory, the stories being represented by the head, chest and abdomen. Taken together the factory forms a complete whole> (…) and he explained that while the food of the lower story was man’s meat and drink, air was the food of the middle story, and that of the upper story was what could be called “impressions”.

 Glimpses of Truth, Views from the Real World

Gurdjieff held that the air, the “second-being food”, nourishes the mind (and on a physical level we all know that the brain needs oxygen to survive) and helps build the astral body which he called the “Kesdjan body”.  The third type of food, the “impressions” are the emotional records of all of our life experiences.

Since Gurdjieff believed only in experienced based knowledge, then the logical conclusion is that his concept of the alignment of the functions of the three brains is absolutely necessary for the construction of the soul. Hence, the “right” ideas can only be asserted as being right if experienced with the body, mind and heart.

Gurdjieff claimed to be a teacher of “Esoteric Christianity” and from that standpoint we can easily extrapolate that Jesus’s custom of sharing meals with others was Gurdjieff’s source of inspiration for his habit of serving food to his pupils. Gurdjieff, a keen observer of our human nature, must have realised the connecting power of this ritual. His daughter, Dushka Howart, confirms the teaching function of Gurdjieff’s meals in the shared memoir with her mother, Jessmin Howarth:

Much that was said at table had very personal application to the person addressed, but it could also be understood on different levels, in various ways, (or maybe not at all!) by others present.”

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Obviously, to succeed in creating his versions of The Last Supper Gurdjieff had to have a talent for cooking.  

cooking cabinet

Dushka reports of this talent. Once Gurdjieff, expecting important quests for lunch charged his nephew Valia to roast four chickens in the oven. Unfortunately, Valia failed to pull them out of the oven in time.

Mastering his rage and disappointment, Gurdjieff strode off toward the kitchen. With a quick twist of hand he tore off the skin which stuck to the burned carcasses of the birds. A few spoonfuls of butter, some cream, onion, garlic powder and some spices transformed into a delicacy what was a hopeless disaster a few moments ago.

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Gurdjieff concocted exotic dishes and turned his table into a dramatic stage where he acted as the master tamer of egos, administering the necessary external shocks that he believed were necessary to awaken his pupils from their identification to their thoughts and emotions.  His provocative remarks, the famous ritual of the Armagnac Toasts to the Idiots, the readings from his books and the music he played on his harmonium after the meals, assisted him in opening up  his pupils to new “impressions”. 

Gurdjieff handed down four books to posterity but unfortunately none of them was a cookery book. There is however Gurdjieff’s famous marinated salad for which Dushka generously provides the recipe in her family memoir.

What he called his “salad” was a soupy, highly seasoned mixture of raw vegetables that was nearer to a chunky “gazpacho”. Ripe tomatos, cucumbers, onions, dill pickles, herbs and spices were marinated to a thick consistency, redolent of fresh dill, fruit juices and gingery chutney. It was offered in a small bowl and was especially succulent with the smoothing addition of smetana (sour cream).

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Obviously, I wanted to have a taste of the salad, but unfortunately the measurements in the recipe are “for three hundred forty-six cup-sized servings …” .   I decided that the effort to reduce the measurements to something more reasonable would be futile given the fact that I have never tasted the salad before. How would I know if the result is accurate?  So instead, I made Russian borsch. I know he served borsch to his pupils.

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