The Beginner’s Mind of a Master Cook

The Beginner’s Mind of a Master Cook

Unnatural History #4 by Amy Ross

Is there something sacred about the flavor I have in mind to make my lentils or vegetables taste that way?

Cooking, for me, has always been a sensual experience. I look, smell, taste, touch. For many of us, coming to our senses is pretty much incomprehensible. Again and again, I encounter people wanting to get it right and make the food according to the recipe rather than learning to trust their instincts and their capacity to negotiate the way for themselves. “How much salt did you put in?” they ask me, without realizing that they do not know how much asparagus or tomato sauce I am putting the salt on.

Ironically, I began cooking from a friend’s copy of a Zen macrobiotic cookbook by George Ohsawa. Since macrobiotics has little or nothing to do with Zen, the designation is just one of those marketing ploys designed to sell: Get this book because it’s Zen! But, though the recipes were not particularly special, it was a place to start, and most of what I was doing wasn’t in the cookbook anyway: cutting the celery stalks into commas, boomerangs, and lengthy diagonal strips; marveling at the intricate cross section of cabbage, so reminiscent of trees; and playing with colors. With a stack of small wooden bowls as well as a set of enamel-coated thrift-store aluminum bowls, I would try placing the carrot pieces in the wooden bowl, the magenta bowl, the emerald bowl, the silver bowl—only to shift them around later, when the ingredients accumulated. No one else would see this magnificent display of colors arrayed before cooking. But I was finding connection with the world through food.

Almost immediately, I discovered that I could cook vegetables that were delicious—that is, leaving the broccoli, the asparagus, the cabbage slightly crunchy, rather than cooking them to death. Years later, when I assisted Deborah Madison in writing The Greens Cookbook, we advised readers to “cook the vegetables until they are as tender as you like.” Still, our copyeditor asked, “How long? How do we know?” You trust your taste—until it changes, and then you trust your taste again. You’re the cook!

Cooking wasn’t just about getting something done or getting something right. I was absorbed in a world of beauty, fragrance, delight.

And I wasn’t alone any longer. I had all these colorful, flavorful companions right before my eyes, speaking to me from far away. I’m remembering the white onions, orange carrots, pale-green celery, and deep-green bell peppers. For dinner parties, I would buy a large bottle of sake (1.5 liters, which was $3 in those days) and busy myself serving food and refilling the little sake cups. I didn’t need to be brilliantly social, after all. I could set up a table and chairs, offer sustenance, provide a companionable space. Smiles, bright eyes, and flowing conversation brought life and conviviality to my kitchen.

Looking back, I was beginning a lifelong love affair. Over many years, I found that if I could relate to food with warmhearted compassion, eventually I could learn to treat people with love and respect, and I could touch my own wounds with tenderness. Marriage, divorce, the passing of my Zen teachers—through it all, food and cooking have sustained me.

You trust your taste—until it changes, and then you trust your taste again. You’re the cook!

None of this is so complicated, really, yet most of us need permission: “See with your eyes, smell with your nose, taste with your tongue. Nothing in the universe is hidden. What else would you have me say?” The words of Zen master Tenkei resonate over the centuries, and still we demand of him: “Tell me how to get it right, so nobody complains. How do I make things taste the way I like?” And the venerable one answers, “There’s not enough milk and honey in the entire universe,” or “Upside-down idea—what are you thinking?”

That nothing is hidden includes the impossibility of doing what you’re asking, pleasing yourself and others always and everywhere. It means, as another Zen master of old said, “The secret is in you.”

You could simply have your own life, come to your senses, and experience for yourself what’s what. One day, while tasting lentil soup, I found that it didn’t taste the way I wanted it to taste. Did it need more salt, pepper, lemon, garlic, oil, butter? On the other hand, why not give it a rest—is there something sacred about the flavor I have in mind to make my lentils or vegetables taste that way? One problem with recipes is that they blind us to the reality that nothing is fixed and that we are creating reality from scratch as we go along. Beyond the recipe, could we aim to bring out the best in the food—and in one another—rather than aiming to behave properly?

Permission to have taste is also permission to cultivate or develop taste. What do lentils taste like? How does salt change their flavor? Or pepper? Does garlic bring out the flavor of lentils, or mask it? Which is which? Are we hiding the true spirit or inviting it to come forward? 

You train your palate. And I believe this is a healthy way of living. It is intelligence at work, rather than blindly obeying the master—whether science, God, religion, nature, Zen, the Tao, a cookbook. You come alive in the process.

Colors, flavors, aromas—wouldn’t it be much more satisfying and engaging to live in this sacred space unfolding with our compassionate attention rather than the world of rules to be followed or disobeyed? That world of rules is where we perpetually wobble on the “goodness” scale, usually resting on “not quite good enough.” Ah!—to taste and enjoy, to play and discover. In that world, the true nature of things comes home to your heart. All beings rejoice. Each one is best. 

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