Leaving the Smoothies of Atonement

 (a ficto-meditation)

My Manhattan hostess was totally yoga-rific. She was putting me up in her flat while I was in town for an Ayurveda thing. At 7am I was up and typing away on the couch, and she breezed out of her bedroom in an om-tank, bamboo harems and bunny slippers, hair pleasantly tousled by inversions. She headed straight for the kitchen.

I’m a smoothie girl. I love my greens. Wanna join me?

It sounded vaguely erotic. I brushed the thought away: it wasn’t like that. But she’d disarmed me, and now I was reluctant to reject the smoothie overture. Also, for the past three years my yoga students had been describing with suspiciously sensual delight their daily greens-smoothie ablutions. So I took a risk for research purposes, and because I can be polite to a fault.

I’d love that. (But did I really have to exaggerate?) What do you put in it?

She rattled off a well-rehearsed list of about 20 ingredients that I suddenly felt I should be familiar with. I recognized kale and maca and pollen and frozen and watercress. And… did she really say algae? Irish moss? And what’s udo’s? I looked wistfully at my blinking cursor and felt sad and hungry, thinking of steel cut oats.

Cupboard doors and measuring spoons were flying. The Vitamix clattered like a cement mixer gnawing down the ice. It was mid-February, and she’d just dumped half of her freezer into the blender. I shivered just looking at it. She handed me an enormous clear hard-plastic sippy cup with LIVE LOVE LAUGH scrolled on the outside and said bon appétit. The smoothie within was green upon green: olive, camouflage, streaks of key lime. Lots of flecks I knew I’d be seeing the next day.

I remembered standing naked and shivering at the edge of my best friend’s swimming hole in Vermont. It was early March. He was a spiritual mentor to me. We were about to jump. I said What is fear? He said Fear is the absence of love, and he plunged in with a whoop.

I felt the icy cup begin to defrost in my hand and closed my eyes and tenderly whispered Fear is the absence of love in my head and took a sip.

Well the goddam mantra didn’t help. Sipping the smoothie was like getting hit upside the head with a rotten log. The smoothie was like in grade six when I face-planted in the mud trough during steeplechase, and my fear of being bullied made me get up and keep running, spitting dirt all the way home.

Wow, she said. So refreshing, so purifying. Like it?

I answered by continuing to drink that smoothie, for I am polite. That smoothie: a frosty blend of hippie sweat and grass clippings.

Mmmmmmmmm, I finally managed. I pretend the smoothie has sent me into samadhi. My eyes are fixed on the middle distance. I’m finding a rhythm for traumatized swallowing. I can and I will dissociate into my supreme Canadian politeness-self to get through a third of it. I bring it to the bathroom with me to take a leak I didn’t really need to take. I pour a few dollops into the can but it takes six flushes to sink the rising green flecks, so now great: I’ve wasted six gallons of water being a repressed knob.

No I do not like it, Sam-I-am. I do not like green smoothie sham. In fact, I have a hard time believing that any of you folks in Yogaland like it, notwithstanding your itchy like fingers liking every picture of every smoothie in my news feed. Actually, it’s not a matter of belief: it’s empirically impossible that you like your forest-floor shakes, for they are predominantly bitter, and bitterness is the taste of grief and repentance. It can bring clarity and equanimity through a cup of gotu kola tea, maybe, on a pensive afternoon in the spring, but not in one-quart doses gulped down with crushed ice in February.

In Ayurveda, bitter is one of the asantosha (discontentment) trinity of tastes, along with pungent and astringent. Milarepa actually turned green drinking medieval smoothies made of nettles and dandelion greens. He was repenting for being a murdering sorcerer — just like the modern consumerist yogi, I’ll argue. Mercury, the bastard son of the roguish Moon who seduced Jupiter’s wife Tara, atoned for his father’s sins by wandering the earth eating nothing but green herbs for a thousand years. His growth was stunted and his hair fell out. He became impotent and founded monasteries for humans. It’s funny that I first heard my friend’s smoothie offer as a proposition, because bitter taste kills libido as quick as an SBD. Or maybe bitter taste atones for libido, or maybe for those women finding new juice through yoga practice, the greens smoothie at least tamps libido down a little when their male partners go slack with middle age and disappointment. Or redundancy. Or illness. I had one client who started her smoothie sadhana when her husband died. She said she wanted to lose weight, but I knew the weight would come off on its own. What she really wanted to lose was memory.

One time someone served me a smoothie with fresh ginger in it – that was a little pungent. Some folks try to sweeten the mess with frozen blueberries – those tasteless zucchinis of the fruit world – which convey but a vague blue aura of sweetness. Bitter greenness and astringent tannins predominate. My Manhattan friend was right: it’s purifying. The tissues respond to bitterness with contraction. A hundred trillion cells sticking out little protoplasmic tongues and saying blekety-blech. The GI tract goes cold, peristalsis slows down. Not good for the morning, really. For the smoothie-drinker with fast metabolism, the frigid bitterness may not bung the stool, but it sure will for folks with cold or declining digestive fire. And unless they’re loading their green sludge with protein powders that are typically difficult to digest, the nutritional value is thin. There are few things sadder than the client in middle age trying to raise vitality with slushy sea-dregs in the morning, who feels virtuous for ten minutes and then woozes all the way through to lunch. And the tastes are drying, as many of the greens – including Greens+, whatever that stuff is – are diuretic through astringency, as is chlorophyll, which tastes like tin foil tea, as long as we’re being honest here. A lot of yoga folks are proud when their urine is as clear as water. A sign of being “spiritual beings having a human journey”, perhaps, but also a sign that the poor old kidneys are overworking.

What is this morning austerity unfolding in millions of privileged kitchens throughout postmodernity? What are we atoning for? Yesterday’s pastries and last night’s beer? Not phoning mom enough? Maybe we’re atoning for the excesses of consumerism itself, with the irony that it’s only unbridled consumerism that brings goji berries from Nepal to a Manhattan crib, traded through the hands of people who will never afford to eat them. People who would be happy with a cup of warm raw milk at dawn, if the starving Maoist armies ever stop stealing their goats.

The entire culture is awash in the ersatz santosha tastes of sweet, salt, and sour. The American promise bulges with the anabolic and steroidal. These building tastes, soothing tastes, tastes that ideally calm our internal winds – these seem to saturate us, though they are usually conveyed through chemical refinements, which offer a toxic mimic of comfort. We have so much, or so we are told, and we are so emptily consoled that it makes perfect sense to turn the consumerist gaze to food items made virtuous through their exotic rarity and unpalatability. We know that the ubiquitous good-tasting things don’t really taste good: we must repent with those rare things that don’t taste good for reals. The hard-to-get, the uncommon, the fragile blessing from a dying lineage. Let us have the tiniest berry from the most endangered shrub at the very end of the world: this will be salvation. We will blend it up and imbibe its impossible ancientness and foreignness, that we may become ancient and foreign to ourselves. We say we hope it’s sustainably harvested, but I think there’s a shadow somewhere hoping to actually get that very last berry, making our smoothie the perfect sacrifice to our perfect collective extinction.

Cold and dry and mobile and insubstantial are the qualia of the smoothie herbarium. Like the wind, blowing where it wills, detaching, unattached, unaffected. It’s a reasonable answer to the pervasive claw of consumerism: try to float above it, try to float away. Try to be in the world, but not of it. (As though it were possible to not be of the world.) But so many want to feel this way, and who can blame us? Floating above the concrete, floating into the desk job that we’re in but not of, glucose-crashing at 9:45am because we had kale and spinach and water for breakfast, but which also means we’ve racked up enough good karma to blow at Starbucks on a sugar-bomb with enough caffeine to suppress our appetites until we get to lunch, which oops we forgot to pack because we were just flying so high this morning, but that’s okay: there’s a really good salad place two blocks away. Better to have some fresh greens after all that dairy and acidity and high-fructose corn syrup.

Kale on ice might be good for the hyperacidic A-type heading off to criminal court.  Or – add some ginger and raw honey and green chili and have it warm-hot if you’d like to jack metabolism. But let’s recognize time and place and season and need, people. For the most part, morning nutrition wants to feel simple and grounding. It’s the kapha period of day for Pete’s sake: a time to gather resources before a journey, new beginnings. Too briefly, we are children in the morning, and children have nothing to repent. If we need to clear some phlegm from the previous day’s digestion, a little local fruit, stewed lightly if it’s fall, maybe with some dry ginger, taking while sipping hot water — this will do the trick. But that’s just an hors d’oeuvre to the day, really. Vata and pitta-types will generally need some cooked grain or a grain-protein combination about an hour later, while the kapha-type can nosh on the lighter corn tortilla, for example, maybe with spicy pickle. Now we’re talking.

Simplicity is key. Why twenty ingredients, anyways? The endless attempt to make the smoothie whole and one-with-Oneness meets the futile attempt to make it palatable. All I need now is to add some kava-kava and chunks of durian, and this’ll be duh-licious!

I sometimes suspect the smoothie isn’t about nutrition at all, or any physical self-care for that matter. Maybe the smoothie is a metaphysical ritual. Perhaps what we really need to pour forth from the mouth of the Blendtec is the perfect path to transcendence that regards neither constitution nor circumstance: the perfect smoothie that speaks to all people in all times and places. A Baha’i temple in a travel cup.

The elements of smoothie-metaphysics are unitary and sublime. Each goji berry like a bindi. Each nib of cacao like an obsidian mālā bead. Grains of bee pollen like stardust. Pour the raw honey (Maui, not Kauai) in the morning sunlight: worship its golden gleam. The ingredients are the ecumenical fruits of the whole earth: kale from the country farm, bee pollen from the Himalaya, maca from Peru, ginseng from Thailand, craisans from the marshes of Maine, rice protein ground in Vietnam, shatavari from India, and ashwagandha, which translates from the Sanskrit as “smells like a sweaty horse’s balls” (so don’t tell me you like the taste). The blender is a whirling altar of transcultural homogenization, grinding out the green pastiche of remembered places and half-believed powers that is postmodern religiosity. Everything becomes One, spinning on that stainless steel star at the root of our late-industrial anxiety.

Bitter taste notwithstanding, I think the metaphysical smoothie actually does redeem something from childhood. I remember being seven and making “soup” out of the weirdest things I could find in the kitchen, mixing everything up in a big stainless steel bowl. Water, ketchup, mayonnaise, a chunk of Skippy, tea from ripped up tea bags, salt, pepper, apple juice, fruit-bottom yoghurt, mint extract, weird red powders from the spice jars, and a lump of Crisco which usually clogged up the egg beater. The point wasn’t to make food. It was to express dominion over my parent’s house and possessions, and by extension the entire world. All of these condiments were mine to assemble and waste and then sacrifice to the drain. The game with my mom was that I’d bring her a tall glass of the smoothie of death and she’d pretend to sip it and go mmm-hmmm! but she and I both knew it was disgusting, and I giggled on the edge of understanding this strange individuation rite: I was taking the ingredients with which my mother nourished me, and feeding her poison with a grin. It was a joke, but there was an edge.

There’s also a communion angle, of course: the green smoothie is like an inverse hamburger. Like the homogenous body made of many bodies, the smoothie is an homogenous juice made of many essences. The body of Earth, given up for us. While the hamburger collates dead flesh, the smoothie gathers almost-still-living food. A perfect answer to the death-culture of sameness, and it’s portable, sharable, sloshing in the yoga-mat bag like a sacrament.

At the end of my weekend in Manhattan I asked my friend if she ever felt like eating something grounding, like cooked whole grain, in the morning. She changed the subject.

Years later, I was running a yoga studio in the rural Midwest and my friend from New York called me and said You have to meet my dad – he lives close to you. She sent him to me. He was a big hippie bear of an organic farmer with zero cartilage in his hips and knees, and he took his leg braces off to stretch out a little, and then we worked some postures in a chair. He was a radical environmentalist with a long list of arrests and endless court dates. His nails were always dirty. He was growing something new that summer in his lower field: amaranth. It was a lot of work.

At Christmas my New York friend came to visit her dad. I picked her up from the airport during a snowstorm. The plan was to stop at the co-op on the way to the farm to pick up all of the smoothie paraphernalia that dad wouldn’t have, but the plane was late with the snow and the coop was closed. She was on edge, obsessing about smoothie withdrawal. We got to the house and she folded into his thick arms and cried a little. She hadn’t been home for years. He stroked her back with a big paw and said What happened to you? You got so thin. You’re shaky.

After dinner it was late and the snow was still falling so I asked to stay in one of the spare rooms. In the morning I came out and sat while the old man hobbled around the wood cook-stove, stoking the coals, boiling water for tea, stirring amaranth slowly. He was blending, old-school. My friend wandered downstairs after a while and went straight to the stove. After a long watch of the boiling porridge she got a bowl and ladled some out. A bit of raw milk from the fridge, ground cinnamon. A little honey from the bees he kept. She ate in silence and sat for a long time, very still.

A few years later her father died. She rented a van to drive out west to collect the stuff. She brought home his whole stock of amaranth. I visited her again one November. The amaranth was taking up so much space that she got rid of an ottoman and stuck a sack of grain in its place as a footrest. She was using a slow cooker to stew the amaranth overnight with cashews and raisins and dates and a dollop of ghee. She served it with a little local yoghurt, and a little maple syrup from my friend in Vermont – his maple trees by the swimming hole.  It was really simple, and we sat and talked about life, and patterns, and connections, and how we lose things. Our conversation was slow, and we didn’t need to talk about the food at all, because it was good and hardly interesting, being all from not-too-far-away. A little sweet, a little oily, with weight to it. And satisfying. She said the morning was her dad’s favourite time. He never liked to rush. On the wood stove things cook slowly. We talked, and the morning lay before us: satisfied, spacious, satisfied, simple, satisfied, mothered, and fathered.

25 Comments

  • Loved this Matthew, thank you! The story weaved through was lovely, and you really raised some interesting ideas.

    I’ll often drinka green smoothie in the morning, but it’s much more simple – kale, banana, chia and milk. In the winer though I do turn back to porridge, with a little fruit, so warming and comforting.

    Thanks for the food for though, and the new site looks great.

  • ‘for reals’ fiction is a kind of sacrifice … (too)
    –the flecks are still there.

    Keep up with the elixers, I love them all.
    Congrats on your new site, and have –fun– with all your Ayurveda teaching coming up. Enjoy your various host/hostesses, hehe.

  • nom, nom, nom, porridge… i wanted to add this fairy tale surrounding stinging nettles to save twelve brothers into the mix. due to a father’s misplaced desire for a narcissist that destroys his relationships with his children, of 13 children 12 boys are turned into swans. they return for their sister in the night with a huge net, lifting her up and carrying her above the city as she dreams. the sister is banished from the father’s house and is left to wander the forest where she meets a wise woman who tells her to stamp stinging nettles into threat and weave them into twelve shirts for her brothers, all in silence. then they will become men. this witch inspired healer lives in cave in silence, continues her vow into the kings basement, stamping on and weaving stinging nettles into shirts so that her twelve brothers can be changed from swans back into men. i believe are also bitter, how would you analyze this? more atonement… nom, nom, nom… what does genuine atonement look like and how do we fuel this? who foods does one need to eat to confront war, ocean gyres, global warming.

    thank you for weaving these wonderful threads. i cannot believe i just sat spellbound at the foot of an article on smoothies. 🙂

    • What a great fairy tale, Andrea. The nettles are extremely bitter. This might depend on where the fairy tale is from, but the swan (unlike in the puranas) is often a sign of sexual licentiousness. I wonder if the sister has been tasked to “tame” the brothers. Nettle-shirts sound like hairshirts to me, by which the “animal desires” are “pacified”. What this has to do with the original rejection of the boys, I don’t know!

  • ahahaha, matthew you are hilarious and genius as usual, but you might want to know the true history and invention of the green smoothie..it actually created miracles for many, and originally it was only fruit and greens. as a matter of fact, victoria boutenko, the creator of green smoothies, says that only greens and fruit should be in the green smoothie, and nothing more…

    • O the baby! The baby! Must take better care of the baby! There’s just a lot of bathwater, Cate. But your thistle/apple/lemon sounds good. Maybe late morning in the spring… 🙂

  • I blend kale, spinach, romaine, celery, parsley, apple, ginger, lemon juice, maybe pineapple or peach or kiwi, if I have it. It tastes good because it’s sweet. I only do it in the summer. Fall and winter = oatmeal.

  • Matthew,

    I had no idea you could do ‘stand-up!’ I was reading this out loud and my wife and I were laughing so hard we could hardly eat our steel cut oats with raisins and maple syrup….

    LOVE IT!

  • i recently got a vitamix. still wondering why. my blender broke, and i thought, hey, maybe it’s time. i kind of like smoothies, but prefer something hot, so i thought i could use it for the soups is boasts it can make, well the first one was passable, the second, tasted like, vomit. like a hot smoothie, – as i tried to put all that weird stuff you write about up above into it. there’s so much to be said for taking the time to make simple clean food.

  • I laughed out loud and cried. My relationship with my father was profound as is my relationship with food. You are the kindest writer I’ve read in years.

  • “The blender is a whirling altar of transcultural homogenization, grinding out the green pastiche of remembered places and half-believed powers that is postmodern religiosity.” Matt you pulverized the green smoothie in every way magnificent and possible. Kudos to you. I’ve been having a big eye rolling time with my folks who swoon over kale which, in earlier times, I recall as a rubbery garnish to be tossed off my dinner plate poste haste. The idea of chugging that cold wet blended mess down no matter how many poorly conceived and gaseouly combined other food stuffs are added is an assault to the senses and good sense.
    Way to pick that bone clean. 🙂

  • Gorgeous writing, great insights and a heart-warming story – by far the best thing I’ve read in a long time (and I say that not only because I’m a porridge-for-breakfast-loving yogi who tried green smoothies in the morning and found my not-so-vigorous inner fires were utterly doused). Bravo.

  • This was so good, oh, what a talented writer you are!

    And seriously: what is it with food? It must be because I come from South America because honestly, this obsession with food and its.. “purity” seems completely neurotic to me!

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