The Zen of Food
It’s sometimes fast, always Slow, deafeningly quiet and a metaphor for life.
You’re making an apple cake. You slice your crisp and juicy Gravenstein into a bowl. So what is it you’re slicing? Well, there’s the sun and the rain that helped the apple tree grow; the farmer who tended the tree; the earth with its rich nutrients that supported growth; the harvester who plucked the perfectly ripe apple from its bough; the driver who took it to the marketplace; the various people who picked up the apple and felt it, and maybe sniffed it, before you purchased it to bake and serve, as a cinnamon-infused afternoon treat, to friends who will hopefully relish it — and at some point return it in a different form to the earth.
That’s a short story of interconnectedness and one choice morsel in the paradoxical buffet served up here as “the Zen of food,” where signature dishes include the famed vegetarian delights of the summertime guest season at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the Ventana Wilderness; the heaven-from-earth culinary pleasures that have given legendary status to Tassajara–inspired Greens Restaurant in San Francisco; and the organic bounty of Green Gulch Farm — Green Dragon Temple — near Muir Beach.
“When I think of ‘Zen food,’ I think of something simple, balanced and attractive to all the senses,” says Laurie Senauke, who has lived and practiced at the Berkeley Zen Center (BZC) for 18 years and before that, Tassajara. “[The food] smells, looks and tastes great and in preparing it, the cook is thinking of the experience of the guest.”
“Zen cooking in my opinion is about allowing the food to be what it is; bringing out the inherent quality rather than trying to manipulate it,” observes Ron Nestor, a regular Saturday breakfast cook at BZC.
Zen practice, in essence, is about paying attention and being present. Kitchen work, food preparation and feeding people have traditionally been seen as a complement to sitting, in silence, in formal meditation (zazen).
“In Zen practice we want our intuition — our universal self — to come forth,” says Berkeley Zen Center abbot, Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi. “When you’re doing simple tasks [like peeling broccoli or breaking lettuce into bite-size bits], your body, mind, the broccoli, the knife, your hand, the breath, are all involved. When you keep bringing your attention back to what you’re doing — when you are simply one with your activity — it’s the same as sitting zazen.”
And when we eat?
“Just eat,” says Weitsman. “Simply be direct and total.”
Similarly, going back to the apple cake: When you slice, just slice. “When you’re thinking (about it), you create a separation. That’s why chopping vegetables is such a great activity; because you get beyond the thinking mind.”
And not thinking, you are the apple.
When Slow is Fast
If you think that Zen is about slowing down and blissing out, you most likely haven’t tried the oryoki experience; the formal and highly ritualized form of eating spawned in the Zen monasteries in Japan and a BZC Saturday morning tradition.
“I got performance anxiety every time I went to oryoki,” says Oakland painter Meg Kiuchi, who tried it several times — then admitted defeat.
Kiuchi — a Japanese-American Francophile and something of a gourmet who regularly conjures up exotic feasts for friends — was raised Buddhist, but in the Jodo Shinshu tradition. “They have the teachings, but they don’t meditate,” she explains. And they don’t have oryoki.
Detailed how-to directives for oryoki date back to medieval Japan. The text, “Instructions for the Zen Cook,” completed in 1237, also gives specific guidelines for preparing, cooking, serving—and even eating food in ways that Miss Manners would approve. One should not, for example, make noises when chewing, scratch ones head and let dandruff fall in the bowl, or pick out food bits from the teeth without covering one’s mouth, to quote from the translation.
“When you do oryoki,” groans Kiuchi, “you have to follow all these forms and know all these hand positions (gestures that tell the server, in the silence observed throughout the meal, that you want more, don’t want more, or want just a little). And you’re supposed to eat, like it or not, whatever is put in your bowl.
“Well,” she continues, “that might be the ideal, but I couldn’t do it. My discriminating mind came into full play. First I’d be thinking, ‘Will I get it all down?’ Then I’d pray that I wouldn’t barf it up. Then I’d wait for it to get locked in my throat, and I’d worry: ‘What if I can’t finish it? How can I clean my bowl?’
More specifically, three bowls. They nest one inside the other and when not in use, are wrapped in a napkin-like cloth. You eat with a spoon and chopsticks. Opening the bowls, laying out the lap- and wiping cloths, serving the food, eating it—all follow form and ritual. At the end you’re given hot water to wash your bowls; you wipe them dry and wrap them up again. There’s no dishwashing.
“It’s a very efficient and concentrated way of having a meal,” says Weitzman.
Also very green.
“Green came afterward,” he notes.
There are many, of course, who relish oryoki. “If done correctly, there’s a flow,” Weitsman
explains. “It’s rhythmic. There’s no wasted motion. It becomes sort of like a very sophisticated dance. The way the servers come in and serve; the way you come into the zendo (meditation hall); it’s all kind of choreographed.”
Except, in Kiuchi’s case, oryoki choreographed up nightmares.
“It’s all done is such a hurry,” she laments. “You have to chew quickly and swallow fast. In fact, I don’t think many people chew. There just isn’t time. How some manage seconds, I just don’t know. I’d start to hyperventilate and curse the server. It drove me crazy. I think it’s all created to make you feel tense.”
“Some people feel like that. We say, OK, just stumble through it,” says abbot Weitsman, good-naturedly responding to questions in his book-lined studio at the Berkeley Zen Center, a short stroll from the Berkeley Bowl.
“There are obstacles in practice and the obstacles are usually your own mind,” Weitsman continues. “So you just notice: I’m anxious, I’m worried, I don’t like the food; and you keep going. That’s practice.”
And, he says, eating fast is the monastic way. “You just eat. It’s only fast when you think it’s fast.”
What about the chewing?
“I chew everything completely and I always encourage everyone to chew everything completely,” says Weitsman. “But I’m just chewing. I’m not dawdling and thinking about something else. Well, I am thinking about something else,” he chuckles, as he does often, in that classic long-time-Zen-monk/Dalai Lama sort of way. “But I come back.”
So, Zen food can be fast. And as Kiuchi and any new or long-time meditator knows, Zen silences while eating, same as while sitting (meditating), can be deafening, as thoughts, ideas, prejudices and resistance shout to be heard.
“Our usual meaning of good is that some things are good and some things are bad according to our likes or dislikes, which is OK,” says Weitsman. “But the true meaning of good is that good includes bad. If we only want things to be good, then mostly we’re living in what’s bad, because we can’t have everything according to our likes.”
And that causes suffering?
“That’s suffering. So, because ‘good’ includes what I like and what I don’t like, we eat whatever is served.”
Suffer on, Kiuchi.
So what is Zen food?
Weitsman established the BZC in 1967 at the request of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the legendary Japanese monk who founded the San Francisco Zen Center. The SFZC has grown from a single location at the corner of Page and Laguna streets in San Francisco — now known as City Center — to include the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center and Greens Restaurant.
She explains: “The menu at Tassajara during winter practice period [when it closes to the public and functions as a monastery, for meditation and study] is classical oryoki; three bowls at breakfast and lunch and two at dinner and always a plain grain in the main bowl.”
Mocine labels it “wholesome feeding-family food.” “There’s a saying that it needs to be interesting enough that people want to eat it; but not so good that they’re talking about it afterwards.”
Summertime food at Tassajara, meanwhile, is similar to the Greens experience; “probably a little heartier,” says Mocine. “It’s vacation food.” Some would call it sublime food. “You want people to feel nurtured in all senses.” So, same as Greens, it’s fresh, seasonal, flavorful, creative, beautifully presented, fantasize-about-forever food.
The City Center tenzo has invariably trained at Tassajara. There, a body of residents eats the food every day, so the menu varies; the approach is home-style fresh, seasonal and local; and there is a focus on flavor and presentation.
Given these differences, what identifies Zen food?
“I’d say it’s more about how you do it. Working quietly and harmoniously and in a way that fits the circumstances,” says Laurie Senauke, who spent six practice periods at Tassajara and helped Greens executive chef Annie Somerville write and edit the 1993 classic “Fields of Greens — New Vegetarian Recipes from the Celebrated Greens Restaurant” (Bantam). “The cook presents the food as an offering; the eater receives it as a gift.” In other words, eats it.
“There are no real rules,” says Weitsman. “The real rules are: What do you do in this [any] situation?”
So, while BZC and most Zen centers are vegetarian and there are many vegetarian and vegan practitioners, outside, in the community, eating meat is optional. “You eat what you’re given,” says Weitsman.
But what if it’s foie gras?
“You don’t have to eat it.” (He laughs.)
So, what is Zen food, I ask Senauke?
“I bet everyone gave you a different answer,” she replies.
Wake Up and Cook
This observation is not about food in the sense of plucking a luscious peach or a forbidden apple from a tree, biting into it, and experiencing the sublime sweet-piquantness of the juice as a rush of ecstasy in the mouth. But it does capture a Zen moment.
I am in the kitchen at Chez Panisse in Berkeley shelling peas. It’s early afternoon and the kitchen crew have just begun their dinner prep. The young cook to my left is chopping carrots. Another cook is attending to a pig’s head with a knife and deep concentration. Jerome Waag, tonight’s chef, is helping a third cook peel about a gazillion asparagus spears.
It’s been a long time since I shelled peas. I have a memory of my Scots grandmother, when I was a small child, asking me to shell peas. I have a strong sense that I resented the peas, and my grandmother, and being asked, and that I felt angry and miserable.
And yet, I remember that some small part of me enjoyed shelling those peas; which wouldn’t have made sense, would it? when my mother refused to shell peas; my grandmother grumbled about cooking them; and the pair dumped the pea shelling onto me.
I now see that there must have been moments when I forgot to feel peed off at those peas and most likely got into the zone with them — as happens in the Chez Panisse kitchen.
There is a sense of peace and connectedness and timelessness in the spaces between worrying that I’m shelling too many peas, wondering if I’m shelling them right and looking for a more efficient way to shell these peas, which aren’t cooperating with my attempts at a formula because each pea is different.
I notice all this during the periods of silence. It is not a noisy kitchen. Waag has noted that the kitchen culture is one of respect and collaboration. People help each other. This is no place for histrionic TV types. Sometimes there is conversation. A discussion about a new abortion-related law in Italy, for example. Opinions about the contents of an article on Martha Stewart.
When I notice I’m back with the peas, I realize the talking has stopped. With nothing to entertain it my mind, once more, is entertaining itself. I try to focus my awareness on my breath, my space in the kitchen and the growing mound of peas.
Waag has invited me to experience the Chez Panisse kitchen after I asked if they peel their broccoli. “Everybody peels and preps,” he replied. “Even the chef might spend an hour peeling broccoli, fava beans or potatoes.”
A cook, philosopher [we need a sequel story] and an artist, Waag has worked in the “downstairs” kitchen since 1991, except for his two years at Tassajara: “The only kitchen I’ve ever been in that [during winter practice period] was warmer inside the walk-in.”
Other than freezing your butt off in the [Tassajara] one, “I don’t think the two kitchen are that different,” Waag says. “This one gets crowded, it gets hot, you do things fast.
“There is a Zen saying that, like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another. Well, the grinding here is more intense. But maybe you’re not noticing it.”
While Tassajara could be called the spiritual home of Zen food, Chez Panisse is home, in the United States, of Slow Food — thanks to Alice Waters, who was honored by the San Francisco Zen Center on March 30, 2008, at Greens Restaurant, for her part in “awakening our senses to what is truly nourishing.”
“Both Zen and Slow are about paying attention,” says Waag. “To how things are grown; where they come from; to things as they are.”
It’s six on a Saturday morning at the Berkeley Zen Center. A couple of dozen men and women, some wearing black robes, have left their shoes on the wooden shelves outside the doors of the Japanese-style zendo (meditation hall) and gone inside to sit on round black cushions facing the wall.
After 40 minutes, they will get up and do a slow 10-minute walking meditation, sit for another 30 minutes, chant and bow through a 15-minute service. Then, for those who elect to stay, it will be time for oryoki breakfast.
On this Saturday, Ron Nestor, a 35-year BZC veteran, has been in the small kitchen across the courtyard from the zendo since 5:15 a.m. The massage and yoga studio manager signs up to cook breakfast about once a month. He always prepares the same meal; and works on refining it.
On Wednesday Nestor bought brown rice from the Berkeley Bowl.
On Thursday night, at home, he ground it by hand in his bronze spice grinder.
At 6 a.m. on Saturday, when fellow Zen student Meghan Collins arrives to assist, he is at the stove, toasting the ground rice in two large pans.
“Making brown rice cereal is time consuming but I like to cook it because it tastes good and its creamy, so long as you stir it a lot so it doesn’t stick or go lumpy,” he says.
“And you don’t need to toast the grain, but it brings out the flavor,” he adds as he watches it turn golden and smells the toasty aroma. He has soaked prunes overnight in water. They will go in the third bowl, with plain yoghurt. The second bowl will have miso soup, with stock made from scratch—another thing that takes time, “but I do it because it tastes better.”
Around 6:05, the Zen priest covering the morning service enters the kitchen. We do a small service. He offers flowers. With rising allergy complaints, BZC has done away with incense. There is a second service when the meal is cooked and the servers come to get it, at which point the cooks go eat.
BZC is a lay community. Even the nine people who live on the property have jobs, families and busy lives. People sign up to cook as needed. “The challenge is to be careful and mindful and to really bring out the quality of the food in a limited time,” says Nestor.
Zen cooking, he adds, mirrors Zen practice. Both are about bringing out inherent qualities.
“Usually we think we’re inadequate. We think what we have is not enough and we want to augment it. Zen practice is about allowing people to be what they are and appreciating them for their inherent qualities; not for how fancy, how skilled, how beautiful they are.”
On the other hand, there are places that maybe haven’t seen the sunshine; or received enough rain. “It’s not about just allowing the habits and patterns. It’s about really paying attention. What, in the deepest sense you are? Who, in the deepest sense, are you?”
In other words, he says, “You can cut out the mold — but you don’t add chocolate and strawberries.”
Except, of course, if you choose to.
Recipe: Breakfast Miso Soup for 10
- 1 x 8 ounce tub of organic Miso Master (miso). Mix into a slush with a cup or so of tap water before use.
- 2 packages organic medium-firm House tofu
- Fresh Chinese ginger (enough to peel and finely grate at least four generous tablespoons)
For the stock:
- 10 cups water
- 2 bunches carrots
- 1 bundle of celery
- One-quarter pound (or more) dried shitake mushrooms
- 2 medium onions
Get mushrooms into the water and boiling while you wash, peel and slice (into about inch-size bits) the carrots, celery and onions. Throw vegetables into shitake water and boil for about 30 minutes. Strain the stock into a separate, clean pot that you can use to continue cooking the soup. Be sure to squeeze excess water out of the cooked vegetables into the stock using a plate or something firm.
(If you can put it to use, blend or puree the cooked vegetables. Otherwise, deposit in the compost. “In the boiling, you will have captures the vitamins, nutrients and flavor,” says Nestor.)
Cut tofu into 1-inch squares. Add to the broth and simmer for about 5 minutes. Pour in the miso (mixed with water). You do not want to boil the miso; allow it to cook at below a simmer for at least 10 minutes.
About 5 minutes before you are ready to serve the soup, add 3 generous tablespoons grated ginger. Add more to taste if desired.
Serve and enjoy. And if you have doubts about miso soup for breakfast, know: they’re just cultural.
For more on Zen and food read:
“Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings” by Edward Espe Brown (Riverhead Books)
“Instructions to the Cook” by Bernard Glassman & Rick Fields (Bell Tower)
“From the Zen Kitchen of Enlightenment” by Dogen and Uchiyama (Weatherhill)
Thoughts on Zen, Slow Food, eating mindfully, having fun with food?
Please share them!