An Interview with Satish Kumar
Schumacher College is a fascinating place and one of the few entirely vegetarian educational establishments. Founded by Satish Kumar and named after E. F. Schumacher, author of the classic 'Small is Beautiful', it is set in beautiful Devon countryside on the Dartington Hall Estate just outside Totnes and offers a wide range of short residential courses as well as open evenings, a Masters' programme in Holistic Science and a Certificate in Education. The college is an initiative of the Dartington Hall Trust
I recently met Satish, who at 72 shows no signs of taking things a little easier, at Schumacher where he is Director of Programme and takes the lead on designing courses and finding the right people to teach them. He often takes a class himself, what he calls 'fireside chats', where he invites students to explore a subject area with him in an informal setting, and contributes to the college in a very practical way by cooking a meal most weeks. He also ensures that the philosophy that inspired Leonard Elmhurst to establish the Dartington Hall Estate in 1925 is upheld. Elmhurst spent several years in India, Satish's country of origin, where he met Rabindranath Tagore, a poet whose holistic philosophy encompassed the environment and ecology, economics, agriculture, the arts and spiritual practice, as well as the practicalities of everyday life such as cooking.
Satish's commitment to vegetarianism is deeply rooted. He explained, "I say half seriously and half jokingly that I have been vegetarian for 1600 years! My family was of a warrior caste and were soldiers in the service of the king. Then a Jain teacher came to our village and he converted the entire village to non-violence, pacifism and vegetarianism. My ancestors went to the king and asked permission to renounce all violence, including violence to animals. The king granted permission, honoured my ancestors' change of religion, and created a new merchant caste of treasurers for them". Many years later Satish was born into the Jain tradition which as he says, "Puts non-violence above all else; to do no harm to other humans, animals, nature or yourself."
This philosophy was deeply embedded in his family's life. "My mother came from a farming family. We had two cows and they were like family members. We respected them and every morning we would go to them and thank them for helping to sustain us. Cows were never fed with grain, only grass. The calves were allowed to feed first, and only then would my mother milk the cows. Then the calves would be given another opportunity to feed. Male calves were kept as bullocks to plough the land. When the cows and bullocks got old they went to an 'old cows' home' run by a Jain community and our family paid for their upkeep until they died. Only once the animal had died a natural death would the skin be used for leather."
Growing and preparing food was an important part of their life which Satish remembers vividly. "We grew sesame seeds for oil, millet, fruit, especially melons, and lots of vegetables. It was all-seasonal of course so vegetables were also dried and stored. We did not grow wheat and rice so we exchanged sesame seeds for these. My mother was a very good cook and made lots of different dishes from these ingredients including sweet dishes like rice pudding. It was delicious food. She used to grind grain every morning by hand to make flour because she believed it was more tasty and nutritious if it was freshly made. As she did this she used to sing beautifully."
Satish remembers the food they ate was delicious and nutritious but simple and he still cooks many of these dishes today. "We mainly ate a combination of rice, lentils and vegetables. My mother used to say that nutrition came from the aroma, taste and colour of our food so a meal usually contained sweet, sour and bitter tastes and several different colours. Every bit of the food, every grain, was cooked with care and there was no waste. After we had taken our share we returned what came from the soil back to the soil - the cauliflower leaves and banana leaves, the potato peelings were all composted and the land was kept beautifully. This is such a contrast with modern society where so much which could be used to feed the soil goes to landfill meaning we need artificial fertilizers."
The decision that Schumacher College would be completely vegetarian was taken 18 years ago when it was first established. Lots of people advised against this, concerned that the college would not attract enough students but Satish decided to stick with his decision and has never regretted it. Satish explained, "This is an ecological college and apart from many other things vegetarian food is the most ecological food. The world already has six billion people but if you think of all the cattle, all the pigs, all the chickens that need to be fed and all the land that is needed to grow grain to feed them then the population of the world is much higher. We only have one planet and we have to know our limits. This makes vegetarianism an ecological, environmental and sustainability imperative."
So Satish decided that Schumacher should set an example. But then he and the other founders also wanted to dispel the myth that vegetarian food is drab and dull - they wanted to offer delicious, celebratory, healthy and nutritious food. So they decided that all staff and students would participate in cooking. Satish explained "Learning at Schumacher is not just about theory. Learning is experimental and what is learnt in the kitchen is just as important as what is learnt in the lecture room. When people are cooking and talking together they learn from each other. And we want people to know that food is not simply fuel, it also brings people together and connects them. We also realised that if students' experience here was to be useful we should not rely on imported food so we have a garden where they spend time each day. In this way growing food, cooking food and eating together builds a sense of community and there is no disconnection between celebration and nutrition!"
For Satish vegetarianism is a holistic and non-violent philosophy, not just a dietary choice, which he sees as even more relevant than in the past. "Meat consumption is causing climate change that is leading to the ice caps melting, sea level rise and flooding - and all just for our palette." He welcomes recent work at the United Nations such as the Livestock's Long Shadow report believing it shows that "Pragmatic, hard-nosed policy makers are starting to see that the non-vegetarian diet is a major cause of global warming and that we have to go vegetarian. It's no good just changing our light bulbs when so much of our carbon footprint comes from how we grow, distribute, store, cook and eat our food. If we can reduce and, if possible, eliminate meat consumption then we will be looking after our planet."
Satish is also convinced that a vegetarian diet is a healthy one and that human beings have no need of meat. As he says, "I'm 72 and have no lack of energy". He dismisses fears about nutrition and lack of protein and is concerned that agri-business uses its economic power to perpetuate these myths simply to bolster their profits. He often advises people to cut down their meat consumption so they can adjust their habits gradually rather than try to go vegetarian in one go. As he says, "You cannot arrive at a place without making the journey and every journey begins with one step. Begin to reduce your meat consumption - that's the first step. If you are eating meat three times a day, reduce it to once a day. If you are eating meat once a day reduce it to 2 or 3 days a week. Start by reducing meat consumption and learn to make delicious, nutritious, celebratory vegetarian meals."
There is no doubting Satish's passionate commitment to vegetarianism. "Western countries have a great responsibility", he says. "We must have an ecological world view and vegetarianism is, fundamentally just that. Vegetarianism is not so reductionist as to be just about what's on our plates - it is a holistic philosophy, a non-violent way of life and of thinking. And if we do not go vegetarian then the planet will be in peril."
A simple Indian one pot recipe
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp turmeric
Bunch of fresh coriander
2 large cloves of garlic
1lb of freshly podded or frozen peas
1 cup of red lentils
2 cups of white Basmati rice
1tsp of salt (or as required)
5 cups of stock (or as required)
Fry the cumin seeds until dark brown.
Add finely chopped onions and fry until light brown, add garlic, red lentils, rice, garam masala, turmeric and salt and mix them all together.
Add the stock and while this is simmering on a low heat, dice the cauliflower.
Add the cauliflower when the rice and lentils are soft.
When the cauliflower is soft (approx 3 minutes) add the peas and cook for a further 2 minutes.
Finally add the chopped coriander, mix it all together and serve hot.
The consistency of this dish is similar to Italian Risotto and the cauliflower and peas should be tender but crunchy. This is also a good recipe for vegans. If you are not vegan you can add a little butter on the top of each serving. Indian pickles, yoghurt and pappadums are a good accompaniment to Khicheri.
Enjoy one-pot cooking, less washing up!
This interview was first published in The Vegetarian magazine, published by The Vegetarian Society: www.vegsoc.org