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Every summer for the past few years I have made the journey to Tassajara Zen Retreat Center in the mountains between Big Sur and Carmel Valley. I look forward to the peaceful surroundings, the mineral baths, the cool river, and especially the food. It’s not really about the food (though I always enjoy it), but rather the ritual surrounding mealtimes that I love so much-from the ringing of the bell when it is time to enter the dining room to savoring the simple meals prepared with love and intention. It all comes back to the practice.
Mealtimes at Tassajara afford me the opportunity to eat with intention and presence of mind, one bite at a time. That might sound completely silly, but eating with intention is not always second nature. How often do we actually slow down enough to enjoy our food and revel in the experience of sharing bread, literally and figuratively, with others? As a practice of eating, I want to taste each bite of my food, to notice the subtle beauty of a fig or the sweetness of a ripe summer peach. But, it can be rare that we take that opportunity and really notice or even take pleasure in what we put in our mouths. Sharing in the mealtime ritual at Tassajara reminds me to make eating part of the practice and of the ability we have to nourish ourselves both physically and spiritually.
Years ago, on one of my visits, I encountered Edward Espe Brown, author of The Tassajara Bread Book, and asked if I could join him for one day of his five-day workshop about Zen and cooking. I was intrigued by the concept, but couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it, and thought I’d just see what new things he could teach me about food. Basically, I was curious and he obliged. His class wasn’t really about food after all, but more about cultivating awareness and a practice of intention in the kitchen. In the introduction to his wittily titled cookbook, Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings, he writes, “Cooking is not merely a time-consuming means to an end, but is in itself healing, meditation and nourishment.” Approaching cooking as a meditative practice certainly wasn’t foreign to me altogether, but rather it was the idea that every task counted, from handling the knife, to cooking the food, to setting it out on the table, and even to eating, that stood out to me.
Having grown up in a family restaurant, I knew a bit about eating and certainly knew my way around a kitchen, but the intention factor had long been replaced by manning a chef’s station or meeting the needs of hungry kids, and it had been some time since I actually enjoyed making food. I fondly recall Ed Brown teaching us, with masterly insistence and rye humor, how to cut a carrot with intention, instructing us how to hold the knife properly, making every downward movement count, having us take note of the shape and color of each thing we prepared, and encouraging us to take pleasure in the process. My curiosity about how all this tied in with a spiritual practice and about Ed Brown himself, made for an engaging morning and inspired me to think about food in relation to our everyday lives, and ultimately how one might go about cultivating a more thoughtful approach to nourishing ourselves.
Eating as a practice is about slowing down enough to enjoy food and to be more present in the kitchen as I prepare meals for my family and myself. Maybe I take that extra moment to arrange the food on the plate so it looks particularly appetizing, or I pick some fresh herbs to sprinkle on an omelet. Sitting down at the table, even when by myself, is another way of practicing intention, giving myself the time and space to eat and not standing over the sink, or by the stove, wolfing down a sandwich, which I admit I have done on more than one occasion. Preparing food with love, regardless of whether it’s a pot of beans or labor-intensive lasagna, is another form of practice. By honoring each ingredient and taking care in how we prepare our meals, we can make food that is tasty and at its best; and therefore, we are apt to enjoy it that much more.
On my most recent visit to Tassajara this past summer, I was particularly moved by what was served for breakfast on my last day. Besides the usual pots of hot cereal at the center buffet, a glass plate with a wedge of Brie cheese, some figs, olives and other fresh fruit and a small, round loaf of warm bread was set at each table next to a vase of garden flowers. I thought it was the most beautiful display of food I had seen in a long time, so simple and yet so inviting, and a testament to the love and intention that emanated from the kitchen that morning. Now months later, the image of that breakfast still gives me pleasure. It reminds me to be mindful of what I’m making in the kitchen, to stir in some love, and not to forget to make eating a part of the practice.