Articles by Jonah Raskin

Greens of San Francisco: Zen Buddhist Cooking and Eating

by Jonah Raskin

Rugged New Englanders brought Thanksgiving with them to San Francisco’s Barbary Coast during the frantic days of the Gold Rush. They did their darnedest to hold on to their culinary traditions, but from 1850 to the present Thanksgiving in San Francisco has always assumed a character all its own, like the wild and unpredictable city itself. Frontier legend had it that jackrabbit not turkey was served at the very first official Thanksgiving soon after California became a state. Nowadays, newcomers who pour into San Francisco from around the world are almost as likely to cook and eat salmon from the Pacific Ocean, or just vegetables and fruits, as they are to serve roast turkey. If they do serve turkey – roasted, barbecued, deep-fried or wrapped in burlap and cooked in a pit in the ground - they make dishes from their own ethnic heritage – spring rolls if they’re from Asia, for example, or Brussel sprouts with pancetta if they’re Italian.

Greens - San Francisco’s booming, gourmet vegetarian restaurant that was founded in 1979 by Zen Buddhists - doesn’t serve a morsel, or a scrap on Thanksgiving, and that’s in keeping with its link to Zen Buddhism, and to the Zen Buddhist community in Northern California. As one long time patron of Greens explained to me at lunch one afternoon, “Thanksgiving is usually a day of excess. It’s when millions of Americans overeat. Zen Buddhism is all about simplicity, and not going to excesses, so closing down for the day is very Zen and an expression of spirituality.”

Indeed, on Thanksgiving, Greens closes down tighter than the mayor’s office at San Francisco City Hall, or the Bank of America. There’s nothing to eat or serve, no dishes to wash, to meals to make. There’s no espresso or Cappuccino, no pastries to go, no deliveries, and no take-out, all of which are available seven days a week, 362 or 363 days a year. Greens also usually closes for Christmas, New Years and sometimes for the Fourth of July; closing on Thanksgiving means more to Greens than any other holiday because it’s the one day of the year that’s devoted almost entirely to food and to eating.

In a city that prides itself on its persona as culinary misfit and cultural rebel among American cities, Greens is an anomaly, though it’s certainly not the only vegetarian restaurant in the city, nor the only restaurant that adheres to environmentalism and sustainability. Its location on San Francisco Bay, at the very edge of the continent, makes it unique. Gaze out the large dining room windows and there’s the Golden Gate Bridge, and beyond it the vast Pacific Ocean that provides a sense of serenity. Greens is perhaps the last place to eat in the continental United States, probably the best restaurant on public land – and affordable, too. The land it occupies is owned by the United States Government, and located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Uniformed park rangers eat lunch in the dining room, and stand out in their Smokey the Bear green felt hats and jackets.

Greens has been owned continuously for the past 30 years by the San Francisco Zen Center, and while there’s nothing explicitly Buddhist about the pizza, the chili, or the vegetable stew, members of the kitchen staff insist that Buddhism helps them to stay focused, remained poised, and not become anxious over a hot stove. The dining room can be noisy, but it’s also a sanctuary from the frenzy of the city, and visitors sometimes meditate in the space. On Monday mornings, the dining room is open to anyone and everyone, and it serves as a community-gathering place and spiritual home - a sangha to borrow the Buddhist term. On Monday nights - “Monk Madness” – wines are at a monk’s prices - half off.

I have been drinking the wine and eating the food - soups, salads and the Portobello mushroom sandwiches - since 1985, when I was introduced to Greens by Professor J. J. Wilson, a friend and former colleague at Sonoma State University, where I teach, and who once lived and worked at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Wilson spends half the year in Florida but she heads for Greens when she comes back to California. “For my money it has always been and still is the best place to eat in San Francisco,” she says.

Greens does not encourage its customers to eat and run, but it isn’t slow food, either. The cooks and the waitpersons aim to get food out of the kitchen, and to tables as quickly as possible without sacrificing the quality of the food or its attractiveness. The dining room staff is mostly made up of young people, and they seem to fly about the room effortlessly and quickly. They look up to Annie Somerville, Green’s executive chef who rarely promotes herself, and who keeps an exceedingly low profile for a world-renowned chef. With her closely cropped head of hair and her lean body she might pass for a Zen monk with a worldly air. Somerville provides the restaurant with both its culinary and its spiritual inspiration, and serves as its public face to the world. Her friends sometimes compare her with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley across the Bay, who cultivates a real public persona.

Not surprisingly, given her love of nature and the outdoors, Somerville leaves San Francisco on Thanksgiving and celebrates with friends on a houseboat in the tranquil waters of the Sacramento River Delta. “We don’t eat turkey,” Somerville said on a busy Thursday afternoon in October when her dining room was packed with locals and tourists alike drinking Northern California red and white wines, eating Mexican tomato chick pea soup, grilled corn and onion pizza, along with a wilted spinach and chicory salad, vegetarian chili, and for dessert, apple huckleberry galette with huckleberry ice cream.

Not having turkey isn’t a hardship for Somerville. “At Thanksgiving, my friends and I usually barbecue freshly picked vegetables,” she said. “We often make a salad of local greens and a butternut squash tart.” Not going to work isn’t a hardship either, though she loves her job.

“It feels good to have the restaurant closed for the day so that everyone who works here can be at home with families. It also feels good not to have to make tofu turkey which some of our customers expect us to make because they’re vegetarians and because we are, too.”

Somerville grew up in Michigan and celebrated Thanksgiving with her parents in the traditional American way with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and all the fixing. While still a student at the San Francisco Zen Center, she began to work at Greens in 1981, two years after the restaurant was founded. She has spent almost all of her adult life at the restaurant, a fact that gives her pause and leaves her amazed at the changes that have taken place.

In the beginning everyone at Green was a Zen Buddhist. Now, Somerville is one of the only Zen Buddhists. She knows the history of the restaurant inside and out and from its earliest days; it was a financial success from the start thanks in part to banker Michael Phillips, one of the brains behind MasterCard, and the author of The Seven Laws of Money. Somerville, along with Mike Hale, the general manager, and Todd Erickson, the kitchen manager, and others, decided not to observe Green’s historic 30th anniversary in 2009. “We can celebrate in 2010, if we want,” she says. “Or not celebrate at all.”

In the early 1980s, Somerville learned quickly about cooking from Deborah Madison, a long time student of Zen Buddhism, the author of the classic, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, as well as the restaurant’s first executive chef who now lives in Santa Fe. Somerville has followed in Madison’s vegetarian footsteps. She has added some of her own culinary accents which are evident in her two hefty cookbooks, Fields of Greens, and Everyday Greens both of which express her own Buddhist perspective. In the introduction to Everyday Greens she writes that, “Zen Buddhist practice is excellent training for work at Greens, like all restaurants, where anything can and will happen anytime, any day. It’s a wonderful place to practice everyday mind, the Buddhist teaching of bringing awareness and acceptance to every moment of everyday life.”

Somerville emphasizes local, organic greens in salads and sandwiches, some of them grown at Green Gulch Farm in Marin, which is also linked to the San Francisco Zen Center. But Green Gulch can’t and doesn’t grow enough greens for Greens year round; there’s not enough land or labor at Green Gulch; the field workers put down their hoes and rakes to meditate and for spiritual retreats.

Somerville likes to get the utmost out of summer crops; she’ll put tomatoes on the menu for as long as they’re fresh and sweet. Fall vegetables that are often associated with Thanksgiving appear in a dish called the “Fall Sampler.” Somerville knows what’s in season by going almost every day to the Farmers’ Market in the Ferry Building, the premier farmers’ market in the city. It’s also the one place where she has the opportunity to meet and to share ideas about food with home cooks and also with the city’s leading chefs, who are there to look, buy, chat, and to be inspired by what’s in season.

Somerville arrives at Greens at 11AM every morning, after breakfast at home and a bicycle ride that helps clear her head. She always walks into the restaurant through the front not the back door - where deliveries arrive - so she can see the place as it looks to customers when they arrive. By 11:15 or so she usually puts on her white jacket that says “Greens” and “Annie Somerville,” in green, of course, pokes her nose everywhere and talks to everyone.

“I have been here for so long that I have a sense of ownership about Greens,” she said. “Today, I think I tasted just about everything we were serving. I added cheese to the pesto, and then basil, and than more basil again. The salad dressing needed lime juice and I added it.” All day long, she tastes the food, talks to cooks, customers, and the dining room staff. She thinks about food all her waking hours, and tries to make do with not enough employees.

“I am not sure what a normal restaurant looks like, but I do know this isn’t it,” she says. “Some days it feels like an airport with so many people coming and going, and from so many different places – Japan, England, Australia, Brazil.” When I asked if she was “the quality control person” at Greens, she said, “I am the main enforcer of delicious, healthy food.” She’s also the scribe of the kitchen, writes everything down, and keeps accurate records.

Greens has about 100 people on the payroll, and Somerville knows the names of almost all of them. Many of them are in their twenties and come from all over the United States and the Americas. Julio Hau from the Yucatan in Mexico makes turkey with peanut sauce for Thanksgiving, marinating it in slices of ripe pineapples and oranges. Marina Montes from El Salvador makes salmon with a salsa that includes Habanero chilis, mangoes, red onions, and red wine vinegar. Sam Ramirez, who works the lunch shift from 7:30 AM to 4 PM, is from the Philippines. He makes pancit, a traditional Filipino noodle dish at Thanksgiving. Adaye Worku whose parents are from Ethiopia enjoys a traditional American Thanksgiving with turkey, yams, and hot, mulled cider, in part, she says because turkey and all the fixings makes her family feel that they’re becoming real Americans.

Somerville loves the cultural and ethnic diversity in the kitchen. “Greens is a real melting pot,” she says. “People come here from around the world, and they share what they know about food. I’m happy that all of us get to go home for Thanksgiving, and that Greens celebrates by closing its doors, and shutting down for the holiday.”