Cuisine as a Spiritual Exercise
1. Food and cooking are deceptively simple acts that are encountered by everyone, every day, and everyone has his or her own opinion on just what tastes good. However, as with effective spiritual practice, good cuisine requires both intelligence and wisdom, both individual experience and a willingness to trust the classics and the experts. Instead of The Gospels or the Dhammapada, you’ve got Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Instead of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, you’ve got Harold Mcgee.
2. Sure, people can cook without ever having cracked open a book on the subject. Some people can cook intuitively with very little need for recipes or measurements, but the food they cook tastes so good because of the processes described in the books they don’t read. If I intuit that searing a lamb shank and then slow-roasting it in liquid makes for a delicious lamb shank, it doesn’t make my process any more “valid” than a recipe for “Braised Lamb Shank” in The Joy of Cooking. Studying what the experts have to say gives you a foundation for your own practice.
3. This doesn’t mean you have to follow what Jacques Pepin says to a “t”– indeed, the best instructors are the ones who teach you how to improvise every now and again. But, this improvisation isn’t “making stuff up,” it’s personalization. Myths are recipes for spiritual practice, and deviating from them here and there should be encouraged. However, you can’t make hollandaise sauce using rum and tuna fish, any more than you can make enlightenment using Ken Wilbur and ayahuasca.
4. Just as with spiritual practice, if you don’t try to figure out what you’re doing when you’re cooking something, you’re gonna end up screwing up. You can substitute baking soda for baking powder all you want because you think it’ll work, but you’re gonna end up with some nasty cookies. And you’ve got a bunch of nonsense out there, too– no matter how many dumb jerks in restaurants are trying to pass off tilapia as Chilean Sea Bass, there’s a huge difference for those who choose to take the time to understand it.
5. Cooking depends to a great extent on the imperfection of the world, on the need to kill to survive, no matter if you’re killing animals or plants. Nonetheless, it’s also the perfect example of the spiritual seed hidden in all things that can manifest in the simplest form: a perfect brioche, a melt-in-your-mouth grilled sirloin, a piece of raw salmon wrapped in a thin layer of nori.
6. There’s a reason so many food critics describe eating as a “revelation,” or “sublime.” As far as I’m concerned, if the flavor of the tenderest slow-cooked forkful of corned beef with a little caramelized carrot and potato isn’t enlightenment, I don’t know what is. For you, it might be the first bite into a hand-picked tomato fresh off the vine, or a swallow of a perfect Italian vino rosso that doesn’t even have a label.