By Hand – Why Making Things is Good for Body, Mind, and Spirit

by Jeff Kunkel
about 80,000

Book Proposal Available to Agents by Request

Introduction to By Hand

Making Dinner For Forty Monks

You get to New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California, by turning off Highway 1 onto a gravel road, which doubles back on itself again and again as it climbs the Coast Range.  The road ends near several wood and stone  buildings, a mile from the Pacific Ocean and a thousand feet above the surging waves. I arrived at New Camaldoli as a guest and expected to be living in the guesthouse, but since I was staying for a month  – and perhaps since I am clergy – the guest master put me in the monk’s enclosure, in an airstream trailer known as The Silver Bullet.  This meant that I would join the brothers in their daily singing, silence, eating – and making.

          What did the brothers make?   One brother made pottery, glazed in the colors of the sea and mountains. One made paintings, another made candles –

     all sold in the tiny gift shop.  Several brothers made compost, gardens, and meals. One crew made fire lanes, another crew made building and road repairs.  In season, the brothers made fruit and date breads – soaked in brandy and shipped to customers across the world. Each day, the brothers made song and ritual.  This daily making was a source of  vitality for body, mind, and spirit for the brothers.  You could see it in their strong hands, fit bodies, clear eyes, and steady walk.   You could sense it in how they respected themselves, cared for one another and their guests, and made their modest home on that mountain.

           I   joined the brothers in daily making.  I’m a writer, so Imade stories. I’m also an artist, so I walked the monastery property and made tiny watercolor sketches of immense vistas, and I joined the brothers in making song and ritual. Toward the end of my retreat, I wanted to give the brothers a gift – or better yet – make them a gift, one maker to another.   But what could I make for them?

                 The meals at New Camaldoli were tasty, nutritious, vegetarian, and eaten in silence.   The brothers told me that they enjoyed the food, but one brother also told me, “I really miss the Ukrainian meals my grandmother made.”  This got my attention. I am married to a woman of Ukrainian heritage and have learned how to make a meal with cabbage, beets, onions, and meat, so the next time I saw the kitchen master, I said, “I’d like to make dinner for the community. A Ukrainian dinner. Thursday.”

He looked me up and down, wondering, I guess, whether I was up to making a meal for forty.  After a moment, he nodded and gave me a tour of the garden and kitchen. A fence surrounded a garden laden with ripe vegetables in order to  keep out rabbits and deer.   The kitchen was laid out and equipped for making meals for forty: four ovens, a walk-in cooler, pots as big as bushel baskets, and utensils as long as yard tools.

          I knew that making this dinner would require much of me, not because this dinner was any special kind of making, but because every act of making requires much of us, including what I call maker’s risk – the ability to ruin, change, or improve what is being made at any point during the making of it.   The prospect of facing such risk, along with our relish for convenience and the readymade, often tempt us to duck, delegate, or hire out making to others. But making is like moving – if we don’t do enough, we are diminished.   

          I went to bed on Wednesday night with the melodies of evening chant still coursing through my body, but my mind began to talk back to me: My dear, well-meaning man, you have only made a few Ukrainian meals in your life, and all of those have been in your own kitchen alongside your wife or her mother.  And in case you forgot, Ukrainian cooking is about meat and these monks are vegetarian.  Even in a monastery, you speak before you think!

            Nonetheless, this was making I had chosen and could no longer duck.   I did decide against trusting my modest bread-making skills in the face of forty

hungry men, so I hired the town baker to make four loaves of rye bread.  I chose my recipes, multiplied the ingredients ten fold, and gave my grocery list to the brother who shopped in town for whatever garden or cooler could not provide.

          At dawn, I entered the kitchen, opened the windows so that I could hear the birds sing, and began making dinner.  First, I assembled my tools: cookware, utensils, and knives.   Next, I harvested vegetables from the garden and cooler and began preparing them.  I first peeled and diced a box of beets – along with their vitamin-rich leaves.  With beet-stained hands, I washed, peeled, and diced

great piles of garden carrots, celery, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a bucket full of yellow onions, which made my eyes sting and water. I peeled and grated twenty pounds of fat potatoes, grated a five-pound brick of cheddar cheese, squeezed a dozen lemons – all the fixings for a salad, a main course, and a sturdy soup.  The four ovens heated the food and kitchen. Drops of sweat broke my hairline and trickled into my eyes.

            Shortly before the monks arrived for dinner, I smelled something burning and pulled a smoking tray of potatoes, onions, and cheese out of one oven, burning my hand as I did so. After throwing open all of the ovens, I saw, with relief, that the other trays of food were browned and bubbling, not burnt. 

            At five o’clock, the brothers filed into the dining room and served themselves Solyanka, a shredded potato, onion, sunflower seed, and cheese casserole; Borscht, a vegetable and beet soup – minus the meat; and Okroshka, a marinated white bean, cucumber, and tomato salad, as Ukrainian as a meal can be when made without

meat by a man who has never been to Ukraine.  We ate in silence, but the monks gave me enough smiles and nods to assure me that they were enjoying what I’d made for them.

            I was worn out from making that dinner and my hand stung from the burn, but I felt good about what I’d made: a plenteous, nutritious, tasty meal, served on time for forty.   As we ate, I relaxed and began to reflect on the other benefits I had experienced by making that meal:  the satisfaction of undertaking and completing a challenge; expressing myself in a way which could be seen, shared, and tasted; confidence in my own resourcefulness; deepened connections to my hands and body, the earth and her bounty, my wife and her mother, the forty brothers, even God.   Many religious traditions – mine included refer to God as Maker. This is no coincidence.

               I am writing this book to convince you that you are built for making, that  you have what it takes to make useful, interesting, and beautiful things, and that making such things throughout your life is good for body, mind, spirit – and often  household and planet. I want you to experience what I call maker’s vitality, a quality of liveliness which is apparent in both maker and whatever is made.  

Stories do much of my bidding – tales about my own making and the making of those I have known, interviewed, or studied: artists, builders, musicians, craftivists, Do-It-Yourself-ers, hackers, and hobbyists. They do their making in studios, garages, barns, kitchens, job sites, and on stage. Their making is motivated by practical need, thrift, spirit, play, and protest.   Some strive for mastery, others

for excellence, and others for whatever works, sells, or suits their fancy.   They make all sorts of things: stone walls, furniture, cheese, gardens, pottery, paintings, wine, music, dance, puppets, gadgets & gizmos…