The Esalen Cookbook

The Esalen Cookbook: Healthy and Organic Recipes from Big Sur

Review By: Gillian Kendall

The Esalen Cookbook

Why the Esalen Cookbook Makes Me Cry

Like a lot of you, I don’t just use cookbooks as instruction manuals: I also read them. From perusing cookbooks I get ideas and gratification: I read in bed to plan a party, or I read at my dining room table to improve the meal when I’m actually eating toast for dinner. But of all the cookbooks I have read, only the Esalen Cookbook has made me cry.

Esalen Institute, an educational and residential community on the edge of California in Big Sur, has inspired several generations of students and seekers of spiritual, psychological, and physical enlightenment. And all that growth needs fuel: the huge community kitchen, The Lodge, turns out about 250 meals, three times a day, most of it locally sourced and some of it grown right on the property. It’s not only the best institutional food I’ve eaten; it’s the best food I’ve ever had.

The Esalen Cookbook helps explain why. Much of the goodness of the meals results from the attitude of the chefs, cooks, and many volunteers or students who staff the kitchens. Before a meal is served, the kitchen staff holds hands around the pots and pans to give a blessing; the nourishment participants receive comes on many levels. Gordon Wheeler’s foreword to the cookbooks describes the beauty and the human processes that we partake in when we eat Esalen food:

If you’ve never been to Esalen, travel here in these pages…In the meantime, take this book as a talisman to retrigger that special state of being, that magic, till you can be here in person again. Use is as a reminder that all of us are alchemists, all of us are potential magicians, really – in our kitchens and in our lives.

This Esalen Cookbook, this introduction, these recipes, and the resulting meals all remind me that cooking is an act of personal service and love, and that through preparing food with attention and devotion, I can be as blessed in my own everyday life as I feel at Esalen, my favorite place on earth. “The most important and overlooked ingredient in any recipe is the preparer of that recipe,” says the introduction to the Esalen kitchen, and I want to hug whomever wrote and thought that. Through making these dishes, I feel part of a community, and I am reminded of the sign in Esalen’s kitchen (where I’ve often worked) “Work is love made visible”: that’s what makes me cry.

This large-format, hardback book of 208 pages contains beautiful, full-page illustrations, not only of the food but also of the gardens and seascapes and of the individuals who created or developed the recipes. There are stories of long-term chefs (such as Charlie Cascio, the author) and short-term visitors; there are helpful illustrative photos showing tricky steps and there is thoughtful, well written text throughout. Many recipes describe the history of the dish and its popularity at the Esalen tables.

Recipes are helpfully arranged by meal and specialty: Breakfasts, Lunches, Soups, Dinners, Desserts, and so on. The Breads section contains detailed directions for making a variety of baked goods, and a clear index at the back makes everything easily accessible.
So far I’ve bought three copies of this Esalen Cookbook (two as gifts) and made about 20 of the recipes, including the one for sourdough rye (an Esalen staple) many times. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve made the kale salad and tamari/lemon dressing, I could buy quite a few more cookbooks to share.

What Others Think of the Esalen Cookbook

Still, even this great Esalen Cookbook isn’t flawless: two reviewers on have noted errors in the quinoa soufflé recipe. But most reviewers, like me, give it five stars:

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent cookbook!, March 14, 2013
By Susan Ahern
This review is from: Esalen Cookbook (Hardcover)
This is one of the most beautiful, user-friendly cookbooks I’ve ever owned. It is exquisitely photographed, but most of all, the food is healthy & delicious, and the recipes are accurate & particularly easy to follow. I also appreciate the vegan alternatives offered for many of the recipes. If you are lucky enough to actually go to Esalen, you’re bound to love the food they serve. But this cookbook is the next best thing!

More reviews of the Esalen Cookbook

You can see more reviews (including one or two complaints about post-sale customer service) by clicking the link for the Esalen Cookbook

Where to Purchase the Esalen Cookbook

Although the Esalen Cookbook is on display at Esalen and for sale in the bookshop, it’s quite heavy, and I’ve found it useful to order it for friends via, Whether or not you ever get to Esalen or even care for the California coast, if you love cooking and you appreciate food that embodies the spirit of place, I think you’ll love this cookbook. I hope you enjoy reading it, using it, and sharing it as much as I do.

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About Gillian Kendall

20+ years of professional commercial, academic and technical writing. With a Ph.D (Ohio University) and two MAs (Stanford and U.C. Davis) I'm a former Chair in Writing at Birmingham-Southern College and Cisco technical writer, currently a fulltime freelance writer / editor with three books to my name, a NEW YORK TIMES notable book award, and hundreds of freelance articles, essays, and features.

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