Zen and the Art of Food

Dear Friends,

It has been a number of years since I first read the book, but if memory serves, Robert Pirsig’s main idea in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was that we should practice acts of quality. It is not unlike practicing random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. All three of those acts – quality, kindness and beauty — are a way of paying homage, and of showing gratitude, to the universe, in some way.

Which brings me to today’s topic: my refrigerator in Brooklyn. One day, after returning from vacation, I spoke with my neighbors, a newly-married couple, who had been my cat sitters while I was away. They said, “hi, welcome back, how was your trip?” And I said, “the trip was great, thanks, and thanks for cat sitting!” Then the husband looked at me apologetically and said, cautiously, “uh, Janet, I hope you don’t mind, but, well, I was wondering, you see, whenever we cat sit for you, well, we happen to notice that you don’t have any food in your kitchen or refrigerator, and so I was just wondering: what do you eat?”

Now the funny thing is this: I had had the exact same curiosity about them. Every time I would cat sit for them, when they were away, I would end up inadvertently exploring their kitchen, maybe just looking for the extra bag of cat food, or looking in the fridge for the already-open can. Not snooping, just innocent kitchen exploration.

Inside their fridge would be some lunch meat, some pre-sliced havarti, a container of “Country Crock,” maybe 5 eggs, a quart of skim milk, some ketchup, and some honey mustard sauce, and possibly a pink tomato or two, on its styrofoam tray still covered in plastic and placed in the “crisper” section (where, of course, was not where the open can of cat food would be, so I suppose I may have snooped a tiny bit). In their cupboards might be some beef stroganoff mix, perhaps a few packages of ramen, and some taco shells. So they had food, but not more than a few days’ worth.

My kitchen, on the other hand, was so over-packed with what I consider to be food, I was constantly running out of storage space. I had big glass jars on top of the fridge filled with green lentils, and red lentils, jasmine rice, barley, dried apples, all-purpose flour and semolina flour. In the cupboards were cans of white beans and pinto beans, an ample supply of canned tomatoes — I would buy the 28-oz size by the case – a jar of honey, extra-virgin olive oil, blackstrap molasses, rosewater from my mother-in-law, vanilla extract, whole peppercorns, dried mushrooms, kosher salt, and turmeric, and cumin and, well, you get the picture. Tons of food, for crying out loud.

When I’d go on vacation, I’d try to make a point of eating the perishable food in the refrigerator, but in any case a person could always find in there nearly a dozen eggs, some good butter, ancient miso that never got used, plain yogurt, milk, carrots, a cut onion in plastic, a mason jar of homemade tomato sauce, some canola oil, a jar of mustard, hot sauce, and the other regulars.

The point here is not that I was superior to my neighbors in my food choices, and if you are thinking that’s what I’m saying, please hear me now: I don’t think I was superior in any way. I love taco shells, the crispy kind, but that’s another blog post. No, I didn’t feel “culinarily” superior, or, heaven forbid, somehow nobler than they in my choice of natural foods. But I did have a heck of a lot more food than they had.

What is interesting to me, then, is that they were genuinely curious about what on earth I ate, because when they came to my house, they didn’t see any food. Most of my food was cluttered about my kitchen, such as the “bulk food” jars on top of my refrigerator. My neighbors wouldn’t have even had to snoop to see my food. It was right there in front of their eyes. But they didn’t see it.

So the question is, why were they unable to see all that food I had? Is it because we live in a culture of “microwaveables”? We do live in a culture where food is there, waiting for you — it doesn’t need to be boiled and seasoned, as with my lentils (but did you know that lentils don’t need any seasoning? Cook them absolutely plain, and then taste just the water they were cooked in, and tell me it isn’t delicious!). But it is true: today’s food doesn’t need to be “turned into” anything, as with my canned whole tomatoes becoming tomato sauce with the addition of that half onion, the other half of which can be found in the fridge, olive oil, and salt, and absolutely nothing else.

But my neighbors – my friends – felt a little sorry for me, and so I felt a little sorry for them too: not because they were pitiable, but because of how sorry they felt for me. It was such a curious situation: my home was filled with food, and they worried I didn’t have enough to eat. I answered my inquiring neighbors as well as I could. I said, “Oh, I know, but I love to cook, though! So I have tons of things to eat, but they can’t be eaten right away.” I thanked them for the cat sitting and the topic never came up again.

Perhaps a work of quality is something that one thoughtfully creates for a specific function. It isn’t of very much quality if it doesn’t ultimately serve that function, although I think it is more about the process of thoughtful creation than it is about the end product. My kitchen was filled with things that required process, and that process brings me joy. I love to cook. My lentil soup might not taste good to you, but putting the lentils in water to cook is something so elemental, and so very beautiful to me, that the act in itself is a work of quality: it is my mindset that causes the quality, not the result. If the mindset about peeling off the plastic seal from a pre-fixed lunch packet is about ingesting calories, then there is little room for the process…and not much space for quality.

Years later, after relocating to North Carolina, I bought some sunflower seeds – shelled, unroasted and unsalted – from an ordinary supermarket. Some of the seeds were broken, some brown and shriveled. As an experiment, my son and I took a handful of them and nestled them between sheets of wet paper towels. We laid them on a plate, and kept them moist over the next week or two. And guess what? Even a few of the broken ones sprouted. They sprouted and wiggled their way out of the paper towels, urging us to plant them, so we did. After the squirrels and the deer had their way with what we had planted, three hardy sunflower plants survived.

I see them growing outside my window as I write this, in the raised bed behind our apartment: bright yellow flowers of happiness. See? It isn’t necessarily the raw materials (some of the seeds were broken), and it isn’t necessarily the results, since most of our sunflower “seedlings” were eaten by critters. Instead, it is the process – enjoying the science experiment with my son, watching things grow, and now, that little spark of joy I feel when I see them lean and bend to follow the sun with their gaze.

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