In a fundamental way, I feel at home in the kitchen. It is the place where I can get my bearings. If I’m agitated and anxious, I don’t really want to be there. I don’t want to be anywhere, but when I face the stove, suddenly I know this. I can start to deal with it. Likewise, if I am happy and want to spend some time doing something I love, I will often begin to dream up food I want to make.
I discovered this one summer working as a cook at Farm & Wilderness camps in Vermont. F&W is a Quaker place, where silent meetings are held everyday and simple work is valued. It was there in the kitchen, without music or radio to distract me, that I began to sense the connection between making food and some core truth in me.
Food is an important part of spiritual practice. In Judaism there are strict rules around the acquisition, preparation, and eating of food. The rules, known as kashrut, are the body of Jewish law that deal with what foods can and cannot be eaten and how those foods must be prepared. It is not a cuisine or a style of cooking.
In the chapter called “What Jews Eat,” in her book Living a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant writes: “Perhaps the most compelling explanation [for the rules of kashrut] is the idea, restated in modern times by Martin Buber, that kashrut hallows the everyday. The intent of kashrut is not to deny the body’s needs or pleasures, but to turn a natural function into a holy act.”
Another explanation is that it is meant to instill a reverence for life, especially animal life. “The biblical mandate not to ’cause pain to any living creature,’ has been cited as an explanation for the rules of ritual slaughter and as a justification for Jewish vegetarianism,” she writes. Importantly, the rules of kashrut require paying attention to what you are doing.
I recently attended a class on Mindful Eating, taught by a longtime practitioner at Seattle Insight Meditation Society. She introduced us to the work of a number of Buddhists who have a special interest in food and cooking. One of them, Jan Chozen Bays, is a Zen priest and pediatrician, who writes and teaches seminars on the topic.
Bays talks about the seven hungers in the body. These hungers exist in the eyes, nose, mouth, stomach, cells of the body, mind, and heart. How food looks, smells, and tastes can all lead us to eat, regardless of the hunger in our stomach. Our sudden cravings for certain foods when our bodies need a specific nutrient and our emotional needs that we try to meet through food also contribute to our eating habits. Within these, there is ample room for developing mindfulness, Bays says. Why am I wanting this food right now and is this a desire I want to pursue? Can I meet this need or hunger some other way that might be more satisfying?
Our teacher also introduced us to the work of Edward Espe Brown, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and an accomplished chef. In this article, he talks about becoming mindful in the kitchen. He begins by describing the Zen notion of “feeling your way in the dark,” being careful and sensitive to what is happening. “Your capacity for cooking will grow and develop from your devotion to being in the dark, not knowing what to do, but carefully finding your way,” he writes. “You enter the kitchen and become intimate with cooking through cooking.”
Our ordinary effort is to dream up a picture of how we want things to be, and endeavor to make it come true. Now, in the dark, you feel your way along, and your wisdom flashes: a salad, a soup; the virtue of spinach, apple, and walnut speaks to you. The body becomes alive because you are doing something. Yes, it’s good to stop and sit and allow the usual impulses for motion an opportunity to move inwardly instead of outwardly — beautiful work there. Yet the hands love to be hands. You give them life by allowing them to find out how to do things — how to wash and cut, stir and knead, ladle and mop.
He advises cooks to put recipes aside and instead engage directly with ingredients. In this Q&A article, he discusses how to do this. “In cooking classes I emphasize adding one ingredient at a time and tasting before and after, so you start to know for yourself what each ingredient is doing,” he says. “If you just put everything in the pot and taste it, you don’t know why it tastes like it does. You don’t know what each ingredient is doing. If you add one ingredient at a time and taste it, you start to know what a spice or seasoning can do.”
I am generally a cook who likes to follow recipes. It will be different for me to find my way in the dark without that guidance. I think I’ll start with that eggplant in the fridge.