You Don't Tell an Italian How to Make Tomato Sauce

Recently I learned that an old friend had passed away. His name is Joseph Oddo. Joe.

Somehow a lot of strings got tied together. Beautifully.

Not long ago I got a Facebook friend request from someone whose relationship with me wasn't clear. I interact on a private professional page and assumed he was a colleague. I didn't inquire further and accepted the invitation. On LinkedIn, the more the merrier. Yet it still nagged me a bit when Joe liked something or other I shared, but still I didn't inquire further.

Very recently I got a notice that he had passed away. Still I didn't look any further.

Then shortly after that news my partner Michele was cooking and asked me about that fellow I had always mentioned who never tasted the food he was preparing; but used his nose, his sense of smell.

It all came together.

Time was when I offered service at a meditation ashram in New York City. Joe Oddo was a contemporary. Offering service (Seva) is part of the dharma, and Joe and I did a lot of work in the kitchen, assisting the cooking of daily evening meals for up to 100, special events for 100's.

Once the community was asked to take over all the kitchen activities, and cover the work with volunteers from the community itself. Prior to that a full time dedicated cook was on staff to head the kitchen. I was asked to fill that role. (If you know about working in the Guru's ashram, you know your ego will get, well, challenged. All in the process of purification to be sure. But, challenged — better, pricked — and sometimes it feels like fire. We people have our differences, don't you know.

Well here I am as manager of the kitchen having to train people to cook full meals for large numbers. Some volunteer cooks with no prior experience. Just how do you cook a pot of rice for 100 servings? And, as I said, each with their own set of experience, backgrounds and temperaments. Plus the policy to cook only for the number reserved for the meal. Little or no leftovers.

If you've ever been in a position to manage a group of people you know it's a dance. Something between wanting to get your way all the time and feeling utterly useless in the face of the inexorable tide of things. Usually, the experience is closer to the latter. You sit back and watch it happen. Adding a little seasoning here and there. Of course, if you are properly placed to manage in a situation, you also know when to call a foul or stop something from going wrong. In the Guru's Kitchen you learn to orchestrate with a light hand. Yet, you will feel the heat in that Kitchen, sometimes get burned. If you are a true Yogi, you take that in stride too. You don't put a pot on to boil that your soul doesn't feel the heat.

Our Joe Oddo cooked with his nose. As many times as I tried to get him to taste the food, he wouldn't. His nose told him everything. Mother's knee sort of thing, I believe. Now I could get all up into a hot argument about how in the hell he could determine the right amount of salt, but he wasn't the sort who was open to that kind of discussion/argument. His speciality was Italian Tomato Sauce. And, like I said, you don't tell an Italian how to make his sauce.

Tomato Sauce aside, Joe also, during my reign in the kitchen anyway, never mastered the knack of cooking right to the expected number of people. When Joe cooked we had leftovers. Where in terms of taste his nose knew, in terms of quantity Joe seemed to cook by eye. I never was able to get him into the math of calibrating the final goal amounts based on number of guests, serving sizes, cooked volume versus raw. But, Joe was a good cook and we folded his, ahem, abundance into the next meal.

I had also vividly remembered a time when Joe and I and a few others set about to fix the stone steps leading down from the sidewalk at the Ashram. Joe took charge. Let's just say, his way and mine were different. I fumed. (Remember, you burn in the Guru's House.) Not least for having to speed off very near retail closing time on Saturday fetching bags of concrete. Double burn. We literally took the stairs apart and rebuilt them. Fine enough, except the treads we reset were not the same vertical distance apart. In short, not right. We hired a stone mason — Italian to boot! — and it was done correctly.

I had told Michele this story many times, clearly remembering Joe, but forgetting his last name. Then she asked what was his name and I instantly said Joe Oddo.


Confession. I had remembered Joe — and so many others from my past history — mainly for the ways in which we rubbed each other the wrong way. This had been a nagging point of discord for me in my sadhana. Something unfinished. Remembering the past, and coming up with mostly sore memories. The word is Forgiveness. A word. But it's the act that matters. That counts.

I've always held that the time of a loved one's, or even an acquaintance's passing, is a time of blessing. So too with Joe Oddo.

I remember Joe very fondly and now those recollections warm and gladden my heart. I do apologize, Joe, for not recognizing you when you requested being a Facebook friend. You are a friend in a much larger sense than that. A friend of my heart. I love you. Happy trails.

Om Namah Shivaya!

Jai Guru, Hai!

If you get into that heavenly kitchen and cook up some sauce, don't overdo it. The Boss there is strict. But, as the joke goes, there aren't that many to cook for anyway.