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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