How to Cook Your Life

No, I’m not offering up an instruction manual, just a plug for the quirky documentary I saw last night, about Zen priest and cook Edward Espe Brown, author of the Tassajara Bread Book and other cookbooks. It’s an odd little film, following Brown from various Zen centers in Germany and California, as he speaks to people gathered for his cooking classes and meditations on the relationship between cooking and spiritual life. We see his students, people of all ages, learning to knead bread and to chop vegetables, and trying to fold these skills into a more mindful way of being in the world. This is all lovely, with beautiful shots of the Zen center kitchens and produce. It also goes down more easily for the fact that we see Brown is not perfectly peaceful and mindful himself. He gets irritated, he gets angry; he’s still working. And who among us isn’t?

Still, the movie over-reaches occasionally when it tries to discuss broader food issues. We see the San Francisco Zen Center folks making food to distribute to the homeless and hungry, and then the filmmakers interview one homeless man about how he finds meals (primarily dumpster-diving). This all makes sense. But who’s the woman who hasn’t bought groceries in two years? She’s not homeless; she’s making a political stand about the price of food. We listen to her explain about collecting grocery store rejects, and watch as she gathers raspberries, aples and figs from neighborhood plants, but where is she? Is this some part of her Zen practice? Does she have anything to do with Brown? It’s not clear at all. But you know, when she gets a member of the film crew to pull some ripe figs down for her with the long handle of his boom, it’s one of the sweetest moments in the film, so I got over wondering what the heck she’s doing in the movie.

And the movie’s main theme is staying with me. Brown repeats these words, which he learned from his own master, Suzuki Roshi: “When you wash the rice, wash the rice. When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots. When you stir the soup, stir the soup.” That’s not just good cooking advice, that’s the kind of thinking that should carry over to your writing, parenting, whatever you’re doing in your life.

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