Engage Brain Before Eating

(about Robert Fripp)
From the San Francisco Chronicle—Friday, December 3, 1999 by Jon Carroll

THERE WAS A time in my life, a very rich and lovely time, when I almost lived in New York City, staying down on Gansevoort Street long before it became chic and walking to work at the Village Voice every day. And yet, I paid no rent and got to go back to California a lot. Oh, golden year!

One of my acquaintances then was the guitarist Robert Fripp, who was a friend of a friend. He was extremely soft-spoken and kindhearted, an accidental rock star who had no particular interest in the role.

So one time a group of us, mostly journalists and musicians, maybe 10 people in all, went to dinner at some downtown spot, cheap and loud and amusing. And we were talking profanely, as was our wont, and gossiping and flirting in that wide-array set-phaser-on-stun sort of way that portends nothing at all unless it does.

And then the first course arrived, and Fripp tinked his glass and said, “I’d like to offer a blessing.”

There was nervous laughter. You may be sure that we were the only table contemplating prayer in that restaurant; you may be sure that none of us (Fripp excluded) were regular sayers of grace.

But in the clear fame-ocracy of media New York, it was implicitly but entirely understood that when Robert Fripp (co-genius behind King Crimson, collaborator with David Bowie and Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno, respected guitar virtuoso) decided a blessing was in order, there would be no catcalls from the cheap booths.

So Fripp said some words, clearly memorized rather than extemporized (and that too was odd, since in America at table we tend to wing it, thanking God for this day and the weather and that Martha could be here despite her hip problems; we distrust flowery language), about honoring the animals and the plants that had died so that we might have sustenance, and commending their spirits to the care of the Almighty.

I T WAS A darned quiet table after that. It is uncomfortable to think about food. Every meal is an act of denial, a common agreement that “food” exists in a category different from “pet” or “animal” or “soulful entity.”

It was easy for me to dismiss the idea that a carrot had a soul, although clearly Fripp in some form believed that. But a big brown-eyed cow, now, or a little lambie, or even a chicken — who are we to say that a chicken does not have a soul? Who made us experts?

I have seen salmon swimming upstream in the endless twilight of an Alaskan summer, leaping over waterfalls, displaying characteristics that look very much like courage and tenacity and fidelity — how do I decide that I have the holy spark and that salmon does not?

It’s possible that none of us has it, that it does not exist at all. But surely that equality argues for greater respect. We’re all in this together, folks, every cow and carrot among us.

H OW YOU VIEW that scene in the restaurant depends on what you feel like seeing. You can see shallow trend-conscious humans bowing their heads in unaccustomed prayer because a rock star told them to — or you can decide that the Buddha has many faces and that hypocrisy is as useful a route to enlightenment as any other. Both are equally true.

Here’s what I know: Every so often, when I sit down to a meal, particularly a meal in a loud and amusing restaurant, I remember the scene with Fripp at the head of the table, his head not bowed, his eyes not closed, remembering to remember that the act of eating is not without consequences.

I am not one who disparages denial. I think a totally evolved consciousness must be paralyzing. So many wrongs; so much suffering; the universe based on destruction and rebirth, on molecules rearranged to create younger and stronger entities.

But I think sometimes we need to see the face of the lamb.

The Stephen Foster song, “I Dream of Dinner With the Big Brown Eyes.” Call every vegetable, call it by name, and the vegetable will jrcsfgate.com.

Call every vegetable, call it by name, and the vegetable will jrc@sfgate.com

©1999 San Francisco Chronicle