Zen in the Kitchen
Amidst my browsing of the pleasantly cluttered and charmingly disorganized shelves of Walk A Crocked Mile Books, previously touted here on SFTF, I stumbled upon what may be the best cookbook to ever be printed. Well, really, let me refine that brash statement. Tassajara Cooking, printed by Shambhala Publications in 1973 for the Zen Center of San Francisco, may just be the best ever cooking philosophy book that happens to also contain some excellent recipes and practical how-to for the beginner and intermediate cook.
You read right: this is a book about the philosophy behind cooking. I find it utterly fascinating to flip through its pages at bedtime as it has such a wonderfully relaxed approach to preparing food that nourishes not only bodies, but also souls. It’s all very “zen.” Sadly, I think this original version is out of print, but if you have a lovely used book shop near you, perhaps good karma will yield you your very own copy.
It was this tidy summary on the back jacket of the book that prompted me to lay out the princely sum of three dollars that was needed to make it mine. “This is a book to help you actually cook – a cooking book. The recipes are not for you to follow, they are for you to create, invent, test. It explains things you need to know, and things to watch out for. There are plenty of things left for you to discover, learn, stumble, upon. Blessings. You’re on your own. Together with everything.”
You’re on your own…together with everything…I love it! The first chapter, entitled “Beginning”, does indeed outline how to begin: “You follow recipes, you listen to advice, you go your own way. Even wholehearted effort sometimes falls short, the best intentions do not insure success. There is no help for it, so go ahead, being and continue: with yourself, with others, with vegetables…The way to be a cook is to cook.”
Within the pages of the book, there are rough ink drawings that somehow do a brilliant job of illustrating cooking techniques and what to look for in fresh produce. There is a chapter devoted to talking about the seasons and what is available in each. The recipes, relegated to the second half of the book behind all the philosophical dialogue on what it means to create food, are spartan and brief in nature, but somehow quite inspiring.
Advice like this doesn’t come all that often in the current gourmand trends eager to blow your socks off with new inventive dishes: “When vegetables are in their prime, consider doing as little as possible. Consider letting them be what they are, rather than making them something else. Hopefully, the simple recipes that follow will prove a guide for doing just that.” And indeed they do.
There is something oddly magical about this book. If you don’t believe me, click on that picture above and read a little of the text… The more I read it, the more it unfolds its secrets. I know that sounds strange, but it is true. For me, it’s proven to be an ironic volume too since I’d previously been an outspoken proponent for very colorful, fully pictorialized (is that a word?), detailed books of recipes with little other fluff in them. I still advocate for those cookbooks on a whole; Tassajara Cooking is just in a class of its own. While I am rather partial to this one’s relaxing zen attitude, do you know of any other books that concentrate on the philosophy of cooking? A book that concentrates on discussing your approach to cooking and not on providing recipes? I’d be curious to read more of them.
And while we’re at it, what’s your personal philosophy on the act of cooking? How do you approach it? Methodically? Creatively? Haphazardly? Fearfully?
Do tell, young grasshoppers!