No Recipe

Posted on in Healthy Living by Edward Espe Brown

Cooking as Spiritual Practice


Back in the sixties when I was first cooking at Tassajara, I tried aking biscuits—and they didn’t come out properly. I knew just how they should taste and mine didn’t taste like that. Okay, I thought, I’ll use water instead of milk—but that wasn’t right. I’ll leave out the eggs—again, not right. Perhaps Crisco instead of butter—still not right. After another failed attempt at biscuits, a new voice spoke: “Right compared to what?” Oh my, I’d been trying to make the biscuits of my childhood, either Bisquick out of a box or Pillsbury ready-made popped out of a can. When compared with the memory of childhood biscuits, mine were one failure after another.

Then an inspiration: “What about tasting the biscuits of today?” Delicate, flakey, wheaty, earthy, sunny, heavenly, beyond compare. Food isn’t simply matter, but a gift, blessing, sustenance from Beyond. Often when you sense carefully, setting aside your childhood standards, you can taste and know it for yourself.

The Beyond itself isn’t simply Beyond, but right here: earth, sun, air, water; winds, breezes, currents, tides, ground, sky, warmth, the creatures sharing our planet. We gather, shepherd, nurture, husband, mother that which grows and flowers, as well as that which supports growth and flowering. Focused care, attention, and work help bring forth food. Our concerted efforts pass on the gifts of Nature. Working with kind mind means that we’re nurturing what we could call the Sacred Body. Food, then, is a manifestation of our love. We belong in this world.

What despoils our awareness and the world are the acts of taking without gratitude or respect. The word for this is exploitation—How do we get the most for the least? To enter and abide in the Sacred means sacrificing your sense of entitlement to what you’re consuming along with your lazy sense of fulfillment. Without the sacrifice of your childhood biscuits, your gratification could come at the expense of what is vibrant and alive today, all that truly nourishes and heals you and others, as well as the world. Tasting the biscuits of today can come home to your heart, and your heart comes forth and nourishes. This takes many forms: family, friends, gardening, cooking, doctoring, teaching.

My Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once explained, “The most important point is to find out what is the most important point.” How to proceed in this world is not obvious, so we may study what keeps us alive or gets us across to the other shore of joy and wellbeing.

mysterious plate

What’s most important is not something that I’ve been able to answer once and for all, but along the way I’ve learned a lot: gratitude, sincerity, thanksgiving, perseverance, diligence, careful observation of the obvious, heart-felt connection, intimacy with the things of this world and with my own world of sensations, thoughts, and feelings.

I keep studying this point, especially as I continue to spend a good deal of my time cooking—bringing home the groceries, hauling them in from the car, and putting them away, dreaming up what to do with the ingredients I have—those out there in the world and my own resources of time and energy. I continue to cultivate my capacity to give my heart and hands to the effort.

There is washing, chopping, sautéing, steaming, baking, boiling. Bottles, cans, paper, compost, all the recycling, and what about all the plastic bags? (I’ve washed, dried, folded, and re-used well over 10,000 bags by now.) Handling one thing after another, the onions and carrots; the bowls, pots, utensils, and certainly the knives (sharpened and ready). Was there something more important to accomplish?

Talk about food and eating most frequently focuses on the outer world: Which foods are best to eat? Which are the healthiest? What’s the most ethically correct? What will save the planet?

What’s a great recipe—that I can recreate with minimal time and stress? There seems to be little acknowledgement of what Suzuki Roshi mentioned to me, “You’re the cook.”

For this, there’s no recipe—for the biscuits or for your life. Things will not turn out the way you want, but when you let things come home to your heart, the food, the cooking, your body, mind, and spirit, sensations, thoughts, and feelings come alive.

Rather than mastering things, you’ll be working to make yourself at home with them. Take emotions. Often people say that when you cook, you need to be perfectly loving. I say, transform your emotions into food. Anger can go into washing, scrubbing, and cutting. Instead of looking for a place to vent, let it fill your body with energy and perseverance. Nothing will stop you from completing the meal.

Sadness evokes your sensitivity. You notice the beauty of the soapsuds on the spatula and the ample roundness and brilliant red of radishes. During my time at Tassajara as the first head cook, in the face of doubt and bone-aching exhaustion, the pale gold tea pots, made of aluminum and dented from years of use, still shone with sincerity. Reflecting on them sitting ready on the shelf, I would think, “Sweethearts, if you can do it (after all the misuse), I can, too.” Look around: Life dents us; still, we can give ourselves.

Edward Espe Brown was the first head cook at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 1967 and later published The Tassajara Bread Book and co-founded San Francisco’s Greens Restaurant. A Marin County resident, he was featured in the 2007 film How to Cook Your Life. His forthcoming book, No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice, releases in May.

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