Joni Mitchell Understood

 

 

We are stardust

We are golden

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden.

Joni Mitchell

l

          And Covid-19 sent many Americans back to their gardens.  In April grocery shelves were empty and people had time on their hands. If this virus was going to be around for a while, folks all over the country decided to plant gardens and spend more time cooking and being with family. Last spring, here in the Sierra foothills and throughout the country, it was impossible to find seeds for any vegetable or flowers. The sale of tomato starts increased by more than 300%. Nurseries were seeing profits they hadn’t experienced in years. There’s always a silver lining in everything.

There hasn’t been this much interest in gardening since World War II. Back in 1917, the U.S. government called on Americans to grow “war gardens” to free up food for soldiers fighting overseas in World War I as well as feeding their families.  By the 1940s, “Victory Gardens” became ubiquitous in every city, every neighborhood. Today, maybe we’re planting gardens to win the war on the pandemic, but more to keep ourselves mentally sane.

Recently I was looking through bookshelves and ran across one of my favorite books. It was given to me by a friend, but I can’t remember who. If it was you, thank you so much.

An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter, published in 1893, was one of the first garden books that weren’t just plant lists and instructional how-tos. It was truly literary. Her descriptions and obvious love of flowers were lyrical, poetic. Thaxter wrote that she often got up at “bird peep” (dawn) to transplant her precious seedlings. Her explanations of what had to be done to save them from the slugs, snails, thrips, and caterpillars are so detailed it’s almost tiring to read.

Thaxter grew up on Appledore, an island off of New Hampshire. Her father was the lighthouse keeper and later her family bought and ran a hotel on the island. Growing up a very lonely child, she became enamored with and dedicated to the flowers and plants that grew on the island. They became her friends/her lifeline. Though some of her writing is somewhat anthropomorphic, still I have never read anything with more sensitivity and appreciation of the beauty of nature.

In her adult years, Thaxter continued to spend summers on the island. Her garden and family’s resort became a destination for the meeting of minds—poets, painters, and thinkers gathered there. Childe Hassam, America’s premier Impressionist painter at the time, spent many summers himself and painted the illustrations for her book. (picture above)

This is the opening paragraph of An Island Garden.

“Of all the wonderful things in the wonderful universe, nothing seems to me more surprising than the planting of a seed in the blank earth and the result thereof. Take a Poppy seed, for instance: it lies in your palm, the merest atom of matter, hardly visible, a speck, a pin’s point of bulk, but within it is imprisoned a spirit of beauty ineffable, which will break its bonds and emerge from the dark ground and blossom in a splendor so dazzling as to baffle all powers of description.”

The family’s hotel and the gardens were destroyed by fire in 1914, but today you can tour Thaxter’s garden if you can get to the East Coast. It was reconstructed by and is still maintained by the Shoals Marine Laboratory, an education center for Sustainable Stewardship in New Hampshire. They offer tours from June through September.

Having some kind of art or creative endeavor is essential to thrive in these difficult times. For me, gardening does that on so many levels—physical exercise, peace of mind, and a deep connection to nature.

Every spring I become smitten, motivated, literally driven to bring to life an even more beautiful and abundant garden than the year before though my body is not as young as it used to be. The roses in May were stupendous, the hydrangeas luminous, and the tomatoes juicy. This year’s zucchinis are not, as yet, happy with their location.

But today, the heat of August is pulling me down, I am overwhelmed begging the landscaper to add us to his schedule. At times the garden battles feel as if they will swell up from behind, and I’ll drown in dirt –moles, those mess-making skunks, hornworms on the tomatoes; and weeding, weeding, weeding.

A new neighbor, not far below our house, has been thinning trees for two weeks. We, here in Nevada County, have all been cutting trees near houses to prepare for fire season. But the constant roar of heavy equipment and the REHHRR REHHR  REHHRR of chain saws grates on me. The sound of ancient pines thudding to the earth shakes not only our house but jars my mental state and makes me feel so sad – not unrelated to the disappointments and isolation of Covid-19 finally taking their toll.

These are small problems compared to the rest of the world. Tomorrow will be different, and so the drama of this life plays out.  We have our highs; we have our lows. I hope you can ride out yours as I must ride out mine.

 

 

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Starting Over

 

Years ago I started this blog as a travel diary and then it got lost in other priorities. These days of the Covid-19 lock down, I’m only traveling from the bedroom to the teapot, my bicycle, and occasionally a hidden beach at a local lake.

Whatever vehicle one uses to explore their “inner world” whether it’s journal writing, painting, gardening, walking, yoga or meditation this time of lockdown is an opportunity to explore them. We can make choices about using this time of isolation to bring a deeper perspective to our own struggles and our place in this world.

Journal writing, for me, has been a powerful tool to bring a deeper understanding of myself. A writer friend of mine refers to the “shit show” of her mind.  All of us have a constant, barely conscious thought drivel dancing in our heads. It babbles on and on with dialogues of unworthiness, fears of failure and disease, worries, and desires for our future. Journaling, as well as meditation, lessens the power this internal chatter has over us.

Everything in life begins with thought whether it’s trying a new recipe or upgrading our resume.  Being more aware of those thoughts helps us plant the seeds of a productive, satisfying life.  It’s sort of like, if you want to harvest flowers, you must dig in dirt.

Oddly enough, isolation has brought me stronger feelings of connectedness.  Partly because I’ve slowed down, have time to notice the beauty that surrounds me and the simple things that make me truly happy.

I’ve been writing in a journal about my fear of aloneness, but slowly learning to enjoy my alone time.  When I am not on track with my purpose and life goals then loneliness sets in, and I fill myself up with escapism -Netflix, Facebook, the lists of menial jobs that I “should get done”, and, yes, overeating. Loneliness, I’ve discovered, feels like a wall I sometimes break through and enjoy the focus and peace of being alone. It’s like opening a gate into a secret garden of contentment and feeling fully alive.

Sometime in March I wandered out into the garden in the afternoon as I usually do and squatted in a flower bed between a pine and cedar tree. Raking a few leaves and needles into a pile, the scent of damp dirt filled my nostrils. The sun warmed the back of my head; the air still moist with the night’s rain. Then I saw them. The tiny tips of daffodils peeking through the soil. I ran my fingers over tops of their heads, and an electricity shot through me. I felt like a teenager when that special boy touched my hand in the movie theatre. Somehow I sensed the connectedness of all life–this miracle of the seasons that the peach trees know to set fruit, and daffodils begin again when the soil warms.

In recent years David and I have been able to travel independently. It turns out that isolation and travel have a lot in common. Exploring/existing outside the box of our culture and comfort zone, forces me to step back my pre-conceived thinking and  ways of negotiating and managing my world. My mind squeaks open, and I am forced to adapt to change; and hopefully see a bigger picture. Travel challenges me to exist in a reality that is completely different than my own culture.

Travel brings connections with people that we wouldn’t necessarily think possible. I remember a guide who took it upon himself to make sure I kept walking on a hike to a temple at the 10,000 foot elevation in the Himalayas. (If I had walked with David, my husband, I would have complained and quit.) What actually motivated me was our conversation. Despite living on opposite sides of the world in totally different cultures and religious upbringing, we had much in common.  Our concerns, ambitions, doubts, ideals and fears for our children and the planet were all similar.  I had met a kindred spirit.

Traveling also brings back memories of a communal dinner one night at an Eco-resort on a remote stretch of beach south of Mahahual, Mexico. The comraderie and international feeling of connectedness was something I hadn’t expected. The group included four older German men, landscapers who brought their wry humor and a generous stash of beer and cigarettes. A young couple from Chile who had just finished their degrees and two women from Austria. Two Czechoslovakians and two Mexican nationals arranged and prepared the dinner. My husband and I were the only Americans. The food was simple—salsa, rice, and a platter full of a whole red snapper roasted in a reddened chili sauce.

The laughter and conversations definitely broadened one’s view of life especially when several of the younger men competed for who might have the honor of eating the fish’s eyes—a supposedly gourmet treat in their minds. And there was that moment when all eyes were looking at David and I when someone asked, “I don’t understand why the wealthiest country in the world is so stingy about their health care?” That was a question we couldn’t answer.

The corona virus has reminded me how incredibly short this life is, how fast it can change, and the importance of sharing our stories.     I invite you to join me in this blog adventure. A story will appear in your inbox about every two weeks. I promise not to give more advice about staying healthy during Covid-19; but to take you with me on this writing and eating journey and go beyond the marketing drivel that abounds about travel; to share the challenges, the serendipitous moments, insights and colorful characters that inhabit our planet. None of us can travel these days, but memories do bring back such vibrant experiences and teaching moments.

I’m feeling eclectic these days. I’ll also include practical stories of growing up in a VERY different world than today, of the organic farmers I have interviewed and even recipes to expand your repertoire.  Just hit fill in your email and hit the button on bottom right that says subscribe and I’ll see you in cyberspace.

Stay well and enjoy!  Patti Bess

 

 

 

 

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The President is Coming!

Dakshineswar Ashram

Five Miles south of Kolkata, India

Some people might walk into a baseball stadium and feel completely at home. I drive up to the big white gate of the Yogoda Satsanga Society ashram just outside of Kolkata, India; and it feels as familiar as my kitchen.

Dakshineswar ashram is five acres of overhanging trees and gardens that face the Ganges River. There are basically four buildings; an office that also includes a temple, a dormitory for retreatants, the kitchen/dining building and housing for the monks which is off limits to visitors.

The temple faces the river. Across the front is a large portico with marble tiles that remind me of a grand porch across an old Southern mansion. The pillars start out as classic Greek columns and then explode into ornate Indian carvings at the top. Birds that make a “whoopa whoopa” sound and crows dart from tree to tree. You can occasionally hear faint sound of voices on the ferry putt putting across the river. The temple has vibrations that I could never find words to express.

What a pleasant surprise! We arrived at the Dakshineswar ashram just days before Brother Chidananda’s visit. Nice coincidence?  He is the new president of Yogoda Satsanga Society of India and the American counterpart, Self Realization Fellowship. Both of the recent presidents have been quite aged so neither had visited India in a very long time. Elected only last August after the passing of Sri Sri Mirnalini Mata, Chidananda  knew immediately that his first duty was to go to India for their 100th anniversary.

The days before his visit we all felt swept up in the excitement.  Ashram employees and volunteers were painting, cleaning, scrubbing, and arranging. Even my favorite security guard with the balloon cheeks beamed with happiness as he went about his extra chores. My friend, the kitchen manager, thought since it was a weekday, perhaps only 200 extra visitors would come, but the next morning they were planning for 500. The streets in Dakshineswar are one lane rat mazes–hard to imagine people finding parking or even a way to get there. There are folks here from all over the world—a German group, two Swedish girls, New Zealanders, and a larger group from Argentina.

Within hours a stage was erected in the gardens, a sitting area set up for serving dinner, audio system tested and re-tested, and chairs carefully lined up. Flowers and banners everywhere possible.

Finally after much Indian ceremonial officiousness, Brother Chidananda took the microphone carrying us away on his commitment to a vision for the future, his humility and love of the guru. During his speech, my mind wandered to the political drama unfolding in America, and I barely could believe my good fortune to be here instead of there. It felt like a dream.

There are many pseudo spiritual teachers, especially in California, but when a person has gone through the training of going within until he/she conquers their own darkness of the mind, there is a magnetism that’s difficult to talk about but is as real as the mosquito bites on my arm.

One feels filled with, what to call it, sweetness, love. These are only words that can barely describe my overflowing heart. He gave prosad (a small gift) individually to every person present, holding our hands for a few seconds.  Being in his presence continues to motivate David and I to work harder.

 

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A Surprise Around Every Corner

Kerala, India

November 25 th

A Surprise Around Every Corner

Morning on the River

Between the funky internet connections and computer glitches, I have not been diligent with my blog communications from India. Now we are settled for our last few days in Kerala. We have been traveling with wonderful friends, but it is nice to be on our own again.

It’s hot. Humidity in Kerala must be 50-60%. The river in front of our place is mesmerizing. It moves slowww and so are we. The much welcome pool is blue and white check tiles, and I swear I can smell cinnamon on the breeze. It’s noon the Muslim callers are singing (moaning) again. David calls them the Muzzies. We wake each morning to frolicking, playful South Indian music that comes from across the river. The birds in this quiet valley along the river are incredible. I would give my left elbow and one toe for a pair of binoculars and bird book.

Thought we might take a backwater boat trip today, but at 2 AM we decided to cancel. It would have been 3 hours in smoggy traffic to get there. Just don’t want to do that again.

We took a walk late this afternoon in hopes of finding a cup of tea. I doubt many Westerners stay in this resort on the fringe of town. We’re quite a phenomenon. Always wanted to be the center of attention (in high school). The women scowl at us and the men just stare. But if I put my hands together, pronam and bow slightly, grins spread across their faces. One toddler saw us passing and sang out in his best English, “Bah bah black sheep have you any wool.” I responded with, “Yes sir, yes sir, . . . . “ And he didn’t quit for blocks. We passed a butcher shop—four bamboo poles holding up a plywood roof. Three or four men just gabbing with each other and cutting up meat. A side of beef or goat hanging street side.

This neighborhood is made up of middle class looking houses.  Some use rocks, tile or even marble for their front yards. Others are surrounded by encroaching jungle. Walking down an enticing trail, we found the homes of the poorer peoples. (Don’t worry, it’s quite safe here.)  A couple acres of banana, papaya, or rubber trees surround the bigger estates on the river side of the road.

Have you ever been in a situation where all your emotions fire off in the same moment? A little intimidation, compassion, confusion, embarrassment and even disgust. We stepped into a tea shop. This bone thin creature nearly leaped out of her chair at the excitement of seeing us. She had maybe two buck teeth left, and one eye crossed. She was more wrinkled than a linen dress on a hot day. Alert but most likely demented.  She waved her scythe at us when she talked (though we didn’t have clue what she was saying). Earlier that day I had seen other older folks with scythes cutting back brush in the front of the bigger estates.

There was a schmaltzy, Bollywood musical on the TV above our heads. David and I started waving our arms and swaying in our seats which made her even more excited. When the owner, who was quite tolerant and protective of her, walked back into another room presumably to make more tea, she got out of her seat and stood in front of our table. With her mouth wide open and full of crackers/biscuits, she pantomimed how she needed more food or help. David just pantomimed right back.

He dug into his pocket for something to give her. When the owner returned, she acted as if she knew nothing about this money that was on the table obviously for her. I’m sure he wouldn’t approve of her begging in his shop.  The energy got a little strained. We finished our tea, smiled, bowed to everyone, and continued our walk.

PS  Another friend I met along the road.

 

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around the villagè of DAKSHINESWAR

Àround Ďakshineswar ashram

jTTHESE ARE h from around the ashramGary a.

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Different Perspective

 

Kolkata, India
We all have pre conceived expectations misunderstandings of any new place or experience. I admit to a certain amt of fear of arriving in Kolkata, India at 1 AM. Purse well zipped, money under my shirt. The reality was/is much different.
One has to smile at the need to have 5 young men sitting at the official taxi booth in a fairly empty airport this late. I question their price to take us to Dakshineswar, a suburb that’s barely a 15 minute drive, when a well-dressed business man steps up to be our advocate. After much haggling, questioning, negotiating an discussing (none of which we can understand), he assures David and I that we will do better somewhere else. He walks us to the next business, we discuss where we are going, look at google map. Another four young men sit munching their snack as “the boss” writes us a ticket on a piece of paper smaller than a 3×5 card. Ten minutes later he says, “Little more patience, madam”. I look over the counter and make a motion of putting a little of their food in my mouth. The guys look confused and then David pretends he might take a nap on the counter. They all flash those radiant Indian smiles. Finally “the boss man” takes us out to the road where taxi is waiting – more discussing and negotiating while luggage is loaded into a beat up Toyota with a trunk that doesn’t close properly. We cheer and finally leave the airport. This is India!
I had forgotten that in India everyone is overly helpful, full of advice, eager to please, and proud of their integrity. For the most part, quite charming. Different from most of the world’s expectatios. The real danger is losing one’s patience and sense of humor.
We wake the next morning to the swish swishing sounds of sweeping fallen leaves from the walkways of the ashram. Mist hangs over the Ganges. Retreatants gather on the portico for morning exercises as a bevy of birds dart in the trees overhead. The ferry putt putts across the river carrying people to work leaving a scent of propane in its wake. The noise, pollution, and busyness of India is outside, this is the eye of the hurricane.
Somehow I stand taller here, do my exercises with more intention. There’s more air in my cells, more lightness in my mind. And my heart is filling up and spilling over. David and I feel like this is our home away from home.

 

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Different perspective

Hello All; We have arrived and are settling in. Last night I was able to sleep until about 2:30, and then was awake the rest of the night. There were 3 nights in a row when we didn’t sleep before leaving so body can’t yet figure out if it’s night or day. Yesterday was Sunday. David and I slept after service. Ashram has grown so much –people sitting out along the building on nice rug/blankets that the ashram puts out.
I tried to go to the 3 hour meditation yesterday afternoon. This one monk whom we’ve seen before was leading the meditation. He oozes with love and devotion when he chants tho I can’t say I had a deep meditation–I was outside on the portico with a few other women so I didn’t make a nuisance of myself nodding off on a regular basis. Finally had to give up and go back to bed. But today it feels more normal. We love living in an ashram!!!!!!
Sunday there were so many people – more and more Indians coming. And a large Sunday School. Early in the AM there are new birds singing and chattering, a whoopa whoopa whoopa” bird and lots of noisy crows. The ferry on the Ganges putt putts across the river sounding like the old Evinrude motor on my dad’s fishing boat. It prb is just as old as that. This morning was misty and moisty but I could still see out across the Ganges.We are so happy here! Content and at peace—nothing to do but read, meditate and walk. Health is fine

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As We Leave the Ground

A temple S of Kolkata near the river in the village of Teillary.

Our bags are almost packed, but too many details remain. On one level it seems crazy to be returning to India, but Mother India tugs on my heart strings from 7000 miles away. To many Americans yoga is primarily focused on relaxing and perfecting the body. But yoga is also about calming, expanding the mind and opening the heart; and what better way, except for meditation,  than launching oneself into a totally new environment. In India the curtain that separates the physical from the ethereal is much more transparent if you are receptive to it.

I’m looking forward to Bodh Gaya where the Buddha received enlightenment and the caves at Ajanta and Ellora. I look forward to being responsible for absolutely nothing except reading, meditating, meeting new faces, and of course, getting to the train on time. Believe it or not, I look forward to seeing my favorite driver in Kolkata. I have to ask him to repeat whatever he says at least three times before I can understand his English. I’ve known him as a young man and now as a father and husband. He, like many other folks we meet, doesn’t need meditation or yoga. He is one hundred percent present with David and I and so empathetic. Being of service is not so much about a bigger tip but a part of every fiber of his being.

I fondly remember our driver and guide through the Himalayas near Rishikesh (three years ago). I took one look at where he thought I was going to hike and said, “I’ll go part way and then come back and sit in the car.” David was already on the trail walking at his own pace (not wanting to listen to my complaints). Our guide didn’t accept my wimpy attitude. He took my hand, and we climbed and climbed. What really kept me going besides the incredible landscape was our conversation and a sense of a deep soul connection. This man lived half way around the world in a very different culture. Yet our thoughts, concerns, hopes and dreams were the same.

Am I excited about traveling yet? Nope, I’m usually anxious until that moment when the seat belt clicks and the wheels of the plane lift off. Then the dream of my life fades into the blue sky and a new one begins. Besides, in India every day is an adventure, filled with intricately flavored foods, and, more importantly, a great cup of masala chai.

If you’d like to join me on this journey, just click “follow” at the bottom of the page. I have some beautiful photos and stories to share. Not about the dirt, noise, pollution and poverty that is, for many Americans, the preconceived ideas we hold of India. I’ll write to you about the deep spiritual heritage that Mother India brings to our world.

Patti

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Oh Susannah! Won’t You Cook For Me?

Ranchi, India

January, 2011

Oh Susannah! Won’t You Cook for Me?

My husband, David, and I are the guests at the home/guesthouse of Mrs. Bhola Singh. She is about 75 years old– a remarkable woman– independent and deeply devotional– a long time member of the Yogoda Satsanga Society here in Ranchi.  Under the direction of Indira Gandhi in the late 50’s, she brought a group of young Indian dancers to the United States on a cultural exchange. “In those days we had to prove to the world that not everyone in India was a snake charmer,” she told me.

Her husband passed away ten years ago, and her loyal servants have been with her for 25 years. As a Westerner traveling in India, the concept of servants is difficult for me to accept though it is not my place, as a guest, to judge.

Susannah cooks and her husband, Kailash, manages the house and gardens. They live in a small cabin on this beautiful estate, eat well, and Mrs. Singh also pays for their teenage son’s education. The growing prosperity in India rarely reaches the lower classes. For most, life is harsh beyond our imaginations—in comparison Susannah and Kailash live well.

100_2236I sometimes walk into the spacious kitchen singing, “Oh Susannah, won’t you cook for me? For I’ve come from California with a hunger for to eat.”

Susannah explodes in embarrassed giggling. I sense that my friendliness crosses a few subtly drawn social lines, but we  have fun together. (despite her serious attitude when it comes to taking a photo) Our attempts to understand each other begin and end with a great many “Thank yous!” One of the few words she knows in English and the only one I know in Hindi. I can’t say that we converse, but we definitely communicate.

One evening I didn’t eat all the food she gave me. Her gestures asked why not, so I blew out my cheeks and walked like an elephant trying to show her how fat I’d become if I did. She laughed and laughed, but soon she walked to the table and asked sweetly, “Not good?” I reassured her with more pantomiming about how delicious the food was.

100_2235I love this woman. Susanah teaches me more than just cooking. She sings quietly while she works and always smiles.  She’s humble and does her work even when her employer or the guests are impatient, grouchy or just getting older and harder to please. She understands the concept of surrender/of the joy of serving others more than this independent, don’t tell me what to do American woman ever will.

For 50 years, advertising in the West encouraged women to get out of the kitchen as fast as possible. Sometimes we see cooking as drudge work to avoid.  Today in India, marketing is geared to the growing affluent generation of modern Indian women. It sounds exactly the same as what we and our mothers, in the 1950’s, were indoctrinated with. “Serve this pre-made soup in a box. It will make your children smarter and you will be a happy mother.”  And the trend begins again. More profitable, packaged, processed foods for India.

Susannah’s love and attention are physical ingredients in the food she prepares. That’s one of the things I admire about her. Serving others is her duty. She accepts that, and it actually makes her happy! What could be more important to do in life than to feed the ones we love?


 

Dal is a standard dish in many regions of northern India usually served with rice, curries, and other vegetable dishes. It’s sort of the fried chicken of India. Every family/region prepares it differently.

Susannah’s explanation to me for making dal went something like this.

“Kshish!  RRRR!!  Kshish RRRR!”  Four fingers shoot up in the air meaning the pressure cooker lets off steam and makes this sound four times before the dal is cooked.

With knife in hand and pointing to the onions, garlic, and ginger; she says in English, “Cut, cut, cut, cut!” Circling the spoon in the air over the fry pan means sautéing them in the butter or ghee.

I don’t have a pressure cooker so here is my Americanized version of how to make this delicious staple. Serve it with rice and raita which is a dish of yogurt with grated cucumbers and a dash of cumin and cayenne. In India dal is prepared in larger quantities to be used for several days, but this recipe is a smaller one for a first try. Enjoy!

Dal

One and half cups yellow split peas *

One teaspoon salt

Three cups vegetable stock or water

Two tablespoons oil

One tablespoon black mustard seeds*

Two cloves garlic, minced

One teaspoon turmeric powder*

One half teaspoon curry powder*

Juice of half a lemon

Add the rinsed split peas to the boiling water or stock. Cover and turn heat to simmer, about 30 minutes. Cook until tender but not so long that they lose their shape. They should have the texture of mashed potatoes.

Chop the garlic.

Heat oil in a medium size pan with a good lid. Add mustard seed to hot oil and cover. Allow to brown but not  burn—just a couple minutes on a low flame. Open the lid very carefully as the seeds tend to jump like popcorn. Stir in turmeric, curry powder and garlic. Sauté until garlic is softened and then add the peas along with the lemon juice. Makes about 6 servings.

*All of these ingredients can be purchased in bulk (in smaller quantities) at a natural foods store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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