Mindful in the Kitchen

Finding Mindfulness in the Kitchen

I love to cook.  I’m self-taught, I have no professional experience, and I doubt that I have the chops to survive in a restaurant environment.  But I love it all the same.  My interests and heartstrings are tugged in a lot of different directions when I cook, but the most consistent sentiment I experience is a connection to life: to the Earth, to farmers and purveyors, to past generations, to my current community, to family.

Heat (An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany) is the fantastic memoir of Bill Buford, who left his job as an editor at The New Yorker to dive into the world of professional kitchens, pasta making, and ultimately, to learn the craft of butchery in Tuscany.  It is a beautiful tribute to those cooks in the world who choose to master craft, and by mastering craft, develop a deeper love for life around them.

The book follows Buford through kitchens of different locations, sizes, and intensity.  At every turn, though, Buford focuses his attention on what he can learn from the moment and from his teachers.  The unifying thread he stitches through these vignettes is a mindful attention to the emotional and human experience of cooking.

Lessons of Mindfulness in the Kitchen

On developing mindfulness in the kitchen:

I once asked Mario [Batali] what I could expect to learn in his kitchen….

He thought for a moment. “You also develop an expanded kitchen awareness.  You’ll discover how to use your senses.  You’ll find you no longer rely on what your watch says.  You’ll hear when something is cooked.  You’ll smell degrees of doneness.”

On the simple pleasure of making good food:

The satisfactions of making a good plate of food are surprisingly varied, and only one, and the least important of them, involves eating what you’ve made.  In addition to the endless riffing about cooking-with-love, chefs also talk about the happiness of making food: not preparing or cooking food but making it…. The simple good feeling …might be akin to what you’d experience making a toy or a piece of furniture or maybe even a work of art – except that this particular handmade thing was also made to be eaten.  I found, cooking on the line, that I got a quiet buzz every time I made a plate of food that looked exactly and aesthetically correct and then handed it over the pass to Andy….

These are not profound experiences – the amount of reflection is exactly zero – but they were genuine enough, and I can’t think of many other activities in a modern urban life that give as much simple pleasure.

On the melancholy ways that food ties us to each other, ancestors, and mortality:

Betta’s tortellini are now in my head and my hands. I follow her formula for the dough—an egg for every etto of flour, sneaking in an extra yolk if the mix doesn’t look wet enough. I’ve learned to roll out a sheet until I see the grain of the wood underneath. I let it dry if I’m making tagliatelle; I keep it damp if I’m making tortellini. I make a small batch, roll out a sheet, then another, the rhythm of pasta, each movement like the last one. My mind empties. I think only of the task. Is the dough too sticky? Will it tear? Does the sheet, held between my fingers, feel right?

But often I wonder what Betta would think, and, like that, I’m back in that valley with its broken-combed mountain tops and the wolves at night and the ever-present feeling that the world is so much bigger than you, and my mind becomes a jumble of associations, of aunts and a round table and laughter you can’t hear anymore, and I am overcome by a feeling of loss. It is, I concluded, a side effect of this kind of food, one that’s handed down from one generation to another, often in conditions of adversity, that you end up thinking of the dead, that the very stuff that sustains you tastes somehow of mortality.

laying_out_the_pasta_at_our_albergo_in_tripoli_art-iwmartld2924
Laying Out the Pasta at Our Albergo in Tripoli, by Edward Ardizzoni

On reaching higher planes of achievement through mastery and listening to your own voice:

This, it told me, is what you have to do to learn this craft: you keep having to be a slave – to not one master but several, one after another, until you arrive at a proficiency (whatever that might be) or your own style (however long it takes) or else conclude that, finally, you just know a lot more than anyone else.

On the connection of the kitchen to the natural cycle of planting, growing, harvesting:

The evening was interminable and I remember little about it, except for a brief exchange with Enrico about his olive oil.  I wanted to know why it was so good.

“There are two reasons,” Enrico said.   “When I pick and what I pick.  Nothing else matters.”

Heat is an important reminder to us to slow down, pay attention, and experience the feeling of what we’re doing.  Pair with Thoreau’s advice on escaping busyness through walking and my post on protecting your time for important work.

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