Something's cooking in that plastic bag from the co-op on the ground over there, next to the empty triangular sandwich box. We don't really want to know, and it smells bad enough that we are going to move to a different table. Poo? Garbage? Death? Something's always cooking, and if it weren't, there'd pretty soon be no room left for everyone. That's what the old lady in the deep-quarantine section of cancer-town said to me, that afternoon, pale wintry light filtering in through the window by her bed. She'd just been telling me about how much she loved her life, her daughter sitting by her side, her grandchildren, all the places and people she'd given her heart to over many decades. Oh, I'd love to keep living if I could, she said. And then, looking me straight in the eye, But if I could, so could we all, and then the world would get awfully crowded. She'd had her turn, and loved this life so much that she was willing to give it up, for its own good.
We start off sort of sparkly, but underdone, and gradually mellow into the deep, funky flavors only possible through surrender, transformation, and decay. We Roquefort. We kimchi. We go deep. Our capacity to be delicious is infinite, though elective. There are beings who become more intensely flavorful as they live on, and others who soon dry up and get rubbery. Of course, we can choose to be re-born, re-basted at any time. It all comes down to: what do I think I am? If everything, then some seriously special sauces will make themselves available throughout life. If this little thing, then the juice runs out. That's about the shape of it.
Yesterday, hungry after teaching , I wandered out into the sunny afternoon in search of something to tide me through grading and tai chi. I entered the dim, fancy confines of the underground place on the corner. Cakes, cookies & chocolate bits, all of which I steered myself away from & towards the quiches. Leek and goat cheese. OK. $7.10 later, with an extra $1 to the tip pot, for the lady with the winged rock-and-roll mudra on her chest (at least I never have to do THAT again, she says), I am sitting on the strangely low, broad red couches of the art building with my food. Expensive quiche: thick, bland butter crust, thick, bland creamy filling. It's not actually very good, tasting of small-business insurance, no-risk guarantees on handmade mattresses, and the boredom of institutional cooking, where no one's allowed to grab the pot of paprika with a mad gleam in her eye, saying THIS! THIS is what quiche tastes like today! Still, it's food, and it does a fine job of keeping me grounded through seven students' worth of projects, before heading to the river.
I quit working in commercial kitchens when I realized I am completely uninterested in producing the same thing, reliably, time after time. I am interested in what THIS moment tastes like. I am interested in licking the spatula straight out of the food processor, to see what today's pesto is like, and gobbling it up while taking sips of glorious icy-sweet lime-slice gin and tonic. I'm interested in resurrecting the gamy and the dead - taking the world's flawed and leftover ingredients and combining them into forms of deliciousness that are irreproducibly born of this moment, with all past experience woven into now, but not dictating it.
I am a disciple of the unbinding of the pantry cupboard and the refrigerator - how ingredients sourced, grown, given & bought suddenly come together in their own extinction and rebirth. Now-soup! Now-spread! Now-pie! I am drunk with making, I am reading the fullness of the world in this kitchen, abandoning what is not in favor of What Is. This body is made of such feasts. This body is a vehicle for feasting, a feasting-magnet, celebrating the plenitude of the ordinary.
When I first started cooking in this way, I was living at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, in the countryside outside of London. Some of the very basic ingredients the community had to cook with were purchased from supporters' cash donations, but everything else depended on a lottery of generosity. Unpacking the plastic bags left in front of the altar during big Sunday gatherings, it was possible to guess who the donors might be. A Thai lady working in a restaurant. Not much money. Bit of greens, white rice, soy sauce - what her grandmother might have put in the bowls of the monks walking barefoot through her village on alms round. A suburban middle-class family, into holistic health: sealed packet of organic baby corn, organic tinned chick peas, miso, organic broccoli, nettle tea. A family with small children: granola, white bread, chocolate candies, digestive biscuits. Out of this disparate array, each day a meal needed to be conjured for 60 people who ate breakfast (huge pots of tea & gruel) and lunch (whatever-miracle-buffet), but not dinner. Each day there was a Head Cook, who took advice from the kitchen manager, an eccentric Croatian monk who eventually disrobed, went back to being Zoran, and struck up a relationship with a formerly fearsome-seeming lay member of the community. Zoran liked to wear a purple velvet tea cozy on his head as a sort of papal toque. His authority, thus affirmed, was important in reining in the devotional zeal of certain Head Cooks who otherwise would have appropriated all the best ingredients for their own efforts.
I learned to like cooking with the stuff nobody wanted to mess with, because it was weird, or there was hardly any of it, or it was bad for you, or whatever. This practice of taking manky bits and cooking them up into something sustaining and good is interrelated with the Bodhisattva Vows: beings are numberless, I vow to free them all; delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to let go of them all; Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them all; the Buddha way is unattainable, I vow to embody it. Ramen stew and twinkie pie, I vow to free you all. Fears of poisoning, allergy, fattening, and skinnying, I vow to let go of you all. Impossible arrays of mismatched foodstuffs, I vow to enter you all. Perfect meal of unbounded generosity, I vow to give you form.
One winter at a sister monastery, I did get really skinny. I was on three-month monastic retreat, and the two sweet young men in the kitchen were consistently not preparing enough food so that I, at the end of the line, could have anywhere near the amount I usually ate, and leave anything for them. So I shrank, to the point that the window in my sternum became visible, and my ribs stuck out. This was good practice: here is what hunger is like.
I've thought all kinds of things about food, and I've gotten sick all kinds of times: from plague-bearing clams in Tsim Sha Tsui, and from Delhi's awful sludge, clinging to the delicate skins of the cucumbers I couldn't not-eat on a sweltering day. In all of this, something's cooking. The Buddha died of someone's cooking, to make room in the world, to allow himself and all of us the liberation of an ending. So it goes, and so it will go, world without end, Amen.