The two restaurants were one borough and worlds apart. The night before I'd been at Peter Luger, the temple to porterhouse excess in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. The next day I was deep in Queens, navigating the Sunday "international smorgasboard" at Annam Brahma. The small vegetarian restaurant is owned and operated by students of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian-born spiritual guru whose teachings centered on meditation and consciousness-raising—and so qualifies for my survey of inexpensive foodstuffs proffered by religous organizations. At $12.95 for the smorgasbord, this Sunday-only option (an à la carte menu operates for the rest of the week) stretches the meaning of "inexpensive," but with no limits on how many times you can head to the buffet, there's at least the prospect of value.
I first became acquainted with Chinmoy in college, not through his message of Hindu-dervived spirutuality, but instead a musical collaboration between Carlos Santana and “Mahavishnu” John McLaughlin. Recorded while the two guitarists were deeply under the influence of the guru, the record, entitled “Love Devotion Surrender,” features exhilarating duel lead-guitar workouts over a crack rhythm section anchored by drummer Billy Cobham. (Apart from the two John Coltrane covers, publishing rights for the three original contributions on the record were held by “Chinmoy Music Inc.”) The back cover pictures Chinmoy, wearing a saffron-orange robe and jacket, with his arms around the two musicians, their hands clasped in a display of fealty.
But even the most jaded critics of jazz fusion would have to concede that the Santana / McLaughlin collaboration held considerably more intensity and verve than the sounds airing at Annam Brahma when my friend Anthony and I arrived: a solo, meandering flute, the melody in no way moving towards any sort of resolution. I confirmed from a volunteer dressed in a cotton sari that we were indeed listening to Sri Chinmoy. “Every composition he wrote was made for meditation,” she explained.
It being 3 in the afternoon, the small room was still fairly empty. A shrine, protected by plexiglass, held a framed garlanded photo of Chinmoy. A server, blond, with a vaguely Scandinavian accent, stopped by the table. "I'll let you look at the smorg, then you can make up your mind," he said. When he turned around his white sweatshirt revealed another photo of Chinmoy, with the caption: “Just one smile increases the beauty of the universe.” When I walked to the buffet, there was another picture of Chinmoy—shaking hands with Mikhail Gorbachev in Ottawa, Canada.
Chinmoy has followers in over 60 countries, and the buffet reflected this international mission: selections like miso soup, crostini with baba ganoush, and spanikopita sat alongside expected Indian selections like crispy banana pakoras and curry. My plate piled high, I returned to my table and watched the restaurant slowly fill. The crowd seemed to consist of both laypeople and those who have a closer relationship with Chinmoy’s teachings (you could tell the latter group because of their smiles—Chinmoy's adherents are a very smile-y bunch).
According to Annam Brahma's website, "Food is God." As I ate I considered what kind of god this food might be. Certainly, given the varying quality levels of the items I sampled, this was not an entity of pure good like the one of Christian theology. Nor was it a jealous, vengeful god of the type met in the Old Testament, the food mostly lacking in that smoky burnt-offering savor (that god however might be at work at Peter Luger). Working my way around the plate, I concluded that the god in Chinmoy's food was one indifferent to our sensual fulfillment—and, like the mayor, extremely anti-salt.
Take the vegetable tofu miso soup. The chunks of tofu and carrots bobbing in the small bowl intimated health, but without salt healthy didn't seem so tempting. The bread I'd picked up was likewise flavorless; the potato slices, bland and soft from being pan-fried at too low a temperature, which as I chewed started to seem metaphoric. That said, other dishes were far more satisfying. The baba ganoush made a great garlicky, smoky spread. And the curry, with its potatoes, green beans and peas, made up for the heat absent elsewhere, even if it was paired with a curiously textured basmati rice slurry, its flavor brightened by being cooked with a cinnamon stick. And I relished a well-executed slice of lemon-poppy seed cake for dessert, liberally studded with BB-like seeds.
My friends and I settled our bill. With the conspicuous shrine at the entry to the room and the smiling volunteers, it felt odd somehow to have money enter into things—like brandishing a charge card in a meditation room. But then food, rent and framed photos of Sri Chinmoy don't pay for themselves. And the tab was significantly less than the tithe at the Church of Luger's.