Kitchen Zen

Ed note, 9/2014: So, I was perusing my google drive today and came across this piece. Searching the blog, it appears that I’ve never posted it. Perhaps it was deleted in the mass-deletion event of 2013. I’m going to repost it here because I remember so well this day, how it felt to be in it. I am so looking forward to crisp fall weather and baking meditation.

Ed Note, 10/2013: As I was writing this piece, my daughter knocked on the door. She walked in, sniffed the air and said “something smells amazing-banana bread?” (it was two loaves of banana pumpkin.) Then she said “I bake all the time now! I don’t know why!”  I showed her this piece, and said “this is why.”


It’s the mindfully simple act of cooking that saves me from slipping into the abyss of seasonally triggered depression in the fall, I think. Finally I can throw-ok, wrestle-the windows open some days, rainforest-like mornings of Whippoorwills and train track repairs I hear off in the distance.

After the furious routine of our pre-dawn school frenzy, I stand in the kitchen bleary eyed, performing tasks by muscle memory: a zombie brought back to humanity by pumpkin spice syrup and caffeine. This is act is the opposite of mindful. This act is pure mindlessness, and sometimes I meditate on that fact alone. What is this mind body disconnect, which allows me to grind beans, measure grounds, boil water, remove a cup from the shelf, prepare the press, pour boiling water into a tube, perform the vacuum extraction in order to get coffee, flavor/sweeten coffee, milk the coffee, and clean up- all while planning the day’s kitchen tasks in the forefront of my mind?

It is this sort of half living/double living that I am working to avoid by practicing working meditation in my kitchen, yet a small, rebellious voice in my head sips my perfect cup of coffee and says “fudge that crap. CLEARLY all that advice was aimed at people who are crapty multi-taskers.”

In zen, part of the practice is working meditation. On the perfect days, I consider this work in the kitchen mine, often working in complete silence, arranging my bowls restaurant line-style  so as to work multiple projects at once.

I love my dishes so much, am so connected to this process, that practicing mindful cooking meditation is very difficult for a busy brain like mine. Each recipe contains a wealth of stories, each dish springs to life as my hand touches the surface. My things don’t match; we never registered for dishes, so everything I touch reminds me of someone. Even as I type I’m thinking Oh Kaile, I ate last night from that green flowered plate you gave me! My prep bowls, nothing special, remind me of my best friend because she’s right, you can’t find any thing better for small measures and eggs. I’ve long since lost the covers.

Now sometimes you won’t need this much orange juice in the bread, Mary Jane Cushman’s voice echoes inside my head as I mix ingredients for cranberry loaves for the freezer. Because the humidity sometimes makes this bread over moist. My eyes wander toward our bookshelf, scan the spines for the children’s book where the recipe lives. I wonder if my daughter can read us this book tonight.

Wait. Mindful. Back to my task.

Dabbing vanilla on my neck, I wish I had the page from that magazine where I learned to make apple pie from the essay that reminded me to always dab vanilla on my neck whenever I made one, just because it smells so good. It was the same torn out page I carried for years that reminds me, now, to put on my grandmother’s apron. Burying my hands in cut apples I’m back in a tiny trailer in North Carolina, alone and pregnant, clad in my grandmother’s apron, smelling sweetly of vanilla and cinnamon. Baking pies for my last Thanksgiving dinner as a single person, my last holiday as an unencumbered adult. By Christmas I would have a child.  Goddammit. By this Christmas, My child may have a child. Wait a minute Universe, can we chat a time out? She’s still just a baby, so.

It’s not working. I sift the apples through my fingers, I concentrate on the grit of brown sugar, try to BE the silt cinnamon and imagine that my daughter’s baby is born on its due date which is identical to the due date predicted for my daughter 18 years ago. As if on a separate track in my head I remind myself not to make out of town plans for Christmas even as I feel myself beginning to notice that the kitchen is 150 degrees and I have started breathing incredibly fast. Why are the fudgeING windows open when obviously the air conditioner needs to be on.

Maybe French onion soup. I hate onions; the mess, the aroma, all that slicing and peeling.  I can lose myself in the task of caramelizing onions and the payoff is arguably worth every cursed second. But a  burnt onion does not forgive you, and neither does a Christmas dinner table full of hungry family that’s been promised World Famous French Onion Soup.

The onions act almost as well as a tranquilizer for me. Here we go: sliced fall onions into my thrift store cast iron dutch oven to roast into a pitiful show of my labor, but sweet, so sweet. Back into a pan on the stove with red wine to reduce; I want them sweeter. This is where  sometimes the onions and their company calm me down even more, if you know what I mean.

In the meantime, I’m using every excuse to fire up my workhorse of a blender. My vita mix emulsifies spices and vegan beef flavored broth base with boiling water. I get lost in the pulse function. Back and forth between my reduction pan and the blender I go and by now, January is a million miles away because I’m sneaking spoonfuls of onions and sips of wine.

One day, will she call me for these recipes, like I did with my mother when I was ready to call a truce?

I did it again. fudge.

I get out the flour and consider making several loaves of bread.


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