The Zen of Cooking

A couple of decades ago, probably around January or February, I found a drawer full of apples that I had forgotten, needing to be used quickly. It was mid-afternoon Sunday; back to the work grind on Monday. I was already stressed about work the next day, and now had to deal with these apples.

I hadn’t baked in years. No mind. I jumped right in and made—apple turnovers? Apple dumplings? I don’t remember exactly, but it was something requiring a crust of sorts, and it was small putzy work, and they turned out looking horrible but they tasted just fine. I had diced more apples than I needed for the tiny turnovers, so I made something else (I can’t recall what this was either, although I think it, too, was something I had never made before). It turned out okay, as I recall.

What I recall most poignantly about the whole thing is how I felt afterwards. Absolutely zero stress about work the next day. Also kind of on top of the world. Perhaps the kitchen equivalent of the runner’s high. I went to bed after midnight, but had one of the best night’s sleep I’d had in months. I made it a bit of a ritual, baking on Sunday evening. In baking, attention to detail matters—the exact measurement—leveling off the teaspoon; fluffing the flour before meting it out; firmly packing the brown sugar. Focus. Blocking out everything else, totally in the moment.

I got pretty good at baking.

I always thought that it was the attention to detail in baking that made it so meditative and relaxing. I also knew that cooking wasn’t like that. Cooking is more creative, more intuitive, less by the book. I did not think there was a zen of cooking. I only thought there was an anxiety of cooking. And certainly intuition wasn’t my strong suit.

However, I did want to start eating healthier, and healthy eating mostly starts with eating at home. Also, being as I was no longer working, I wanted to cut down on food costs and eating at home is one of the best ways to do that, too. And plus, really—I just wanted to learn how to cook. I used to love to cook when I was in high school. I even threw dinner parties for my friends! (Just lasagna, but still.) But then I was in a long-term relationship with someone who derided my cooking, and I gradually just stopped cooking pretty much altogether.

But life moves on, and with more time on my hands and a renewed interest in cooking, I decided to develop a relationship with my kitchen (a small and awkwardly shaped kitchen that I am finding very useful in terms of minimal steps from counter to refrigerator to stove—basically, just pivot). And joy of joys, I have discovered the zen in cooking. Much like baking, it requires attention. Chop chop chop chop chop. So methodical, so meditative. But it also involves a knife and you must pay attention.

And even without one iota of intuition, I can learn. Much of the joy of cooking is in the doing; even failures are fun. This is the one area of my life where I embrace failure because I learn so much from it. And I’m also learning that most disasters can be salvaged in some way.

But what I enjoy most is the varied nature of the attention required. It’s in the stirring and the watching, the checking and the tasting. It’s in the herbs: harvesting, grinding, measuring, mixing. And always the tasting. Sometimes constant attention is required; more often I can read on the porch with occasional checking in.

So I have indeed found my zen of cooking. And surprising me to the max, I am finding that I like cooking at least as much as baking. No more cooking anxiety. Failures? Sure. But who cares? Exult in your failure, learn and move on.

Possibly this approach would work in areas beyond cooking.

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August Reprise

August was mostly about cleaning and cooking and culling. Part of this burst of productivity was due to the fact that our internet was down for nearly 2 weeks. Without that distraction (though I did learn a lot of new tricks with my phone), I turned to other forms of entertainment. Plus we were very lucky to have an unseasonably cool and rainy patch which gave me a boost of energy and made both cooking and cleaning more enjoyable.

As for the book culling, that was done mostly in the basement on the hottest days. I found it a fine way to while away a hot afternoon: going through old books that I’ve read and loved enough to keep, thinking I might read them again. But tastes change, time gets a little shorter, and new books keep coming out, and often a few years after reading it is easier to part with a book than immediately on completion. I did it at a good time, too—I was feeling quite ruthless. (It’s worthless to try book culling when in a sentimental mood. You’re lucky to find even one book you can part with.) In all, I culled about 500 books. When I saw the piles and piles and bags and bags, I hesitated. Wasn’t I getting rid of a sizable portion of my collection? But then I thought that perhaps I was merely getting rid of as many books as I’ve purchased since moving into this house 8 years ago. And then I decided to find out (because I keep track of these kinds of things). Oh. Well. I just did the calculation. From 2008-2014 (the most easily available data), I bought 1,350 books. I have barely culled what amounts to one-third of the books that I’ve brought into the house since moving in! But there are two more bookcases and another cabinet of books in the basement to cull, as well as others tucked here and there in nooks and crannies throughout the house. Maybe I’ll get to 1,000 before the end of the year!

EvermealBut August was also about reading, of course. I read 15 books in August, mostly nonfiction (8), but also 3 books of poetry and 4 novels. The best of the pack was An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler. I started this book intending to give it to my sister-in-law as part of her Christmas package (we have a “no new gifts” policy). It took me less than a chapter to wonder if I would be able to part with this book—so many things I wanted to try, cooking techniques and recipes (e.g., baked ricotta, parsley salad). Adler’s book also contributed to my August bean frenzy, with an entire chapter devoted to beans. By chapter two I had used my pencil gingerly, and by chapter six I was wielding it with abandon. This is a book that will go on my kitchen bookshelf to be consulted often, and reread on occasion. For those of you out there that love food-related literature, An Everlasting Meal is modeled on M. F. K. Fisher’s book, How to Cook a Wolf. I’ve not read any Fisher, but we happen to have How to Cook a Wolf in the house, and I expect to read it before the year’s end.

[Note: My sluggish computer is not loading pictures. I hope to come back and add more in later.]

The other best book was My Favorite Things, by Maira Kalman. This book is a visual treat—the type of book that I adore. I have loved all the books of hers that I’ve read, but this, more than any other, made me smile.

As for the cleaning, I won’t bore you with that much, except to say that the dust bunnies behind the poetry were more akin to dust hares, and vacuuming stairs is seriously unpleasant.

I’ve already written about my foray into the world of beans, and that has continued. I made a batch of kidney and pinto beans in the slow cooker (with just an onion, several garlic cloves, and salt, with the salt added toward the end) and they were great!

My efforts to limit my eating of factory-farmed meat have been moderately successful (in large part because it’s summer when I tend to eat less meat anyway) and I’ve surprised myself at how many meatless days I have (18 of 31 days in August). Eating out less has definitely been a factor in the increase in meatless days (and it has been good to my wallet!).

Also in the domestic realm, my neighbor and I made dishwashing soap and laundry soap. It was a fun afternoon of grating (bar soap—we used Dr. Bronner’s) and stirring and mixing and pouring. I’ve tried both the laundry and dish soap and have no complaints. Cheaper, fewer chemicals, and better for the environment. As long as it works, I’m there!

But the huge event of August was seeing The Music Man at the Guthrie Theater. In fact we loved it so much, we went back two weeks later and saw it again (from a completely different vantage point). A total luxury and worth every penny.