How Cooking Transforms the Aching Soul

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Living today’s hurry-up-run-run-run-faster-faster-text-text lifestyle tends to blunt contact with more earthy things, like cooking. The act of cooking offers something that the stiffest drink or most potent tranquilizer cannot.

Dare I say it out loud?

It’s even better than sex, in a way. Especially when chocolate is involved, but that’s another story … .

For me, cooking offers a glimpse of the spiritual, but it’s also a calming and mindful activity. After all, I must be in the present moment when I’m frying bacon or it will burn. Or it will burn me! No texting while frying, hmmm?

Seriously, cooking ties me to the basic ingredients that come from  the earth, part of the infinite universe. I’ve no doubt that the modern rush to garden, to grow a pot of herbs or a full-blown garden,  to shop at a local farmer’s market reflects a desire for deep connectedness. And that sense of groundedness will never come with great numbers of LIKES on Facebook or thousands of followers on Twitter.

St. Benedict told his monks to reverence the utensils of the kitchen in the same way they cared for the sacred chalice on the altar:

“All tools and goods are to be regarded as though they were the consecrated vessels of the altar.” (Rule of Benedict 31:10)

I find similar sentiments in Zen Buddhism:

A young monk was assigned to make the bread for the monastery.  While he was kneading the bread he began to wonder at just what might be the perfect food for one to eat.  He decided that it was the apple, which required no cooking thus would be the perfect food to eat.  This monk then chose to practice this decision by eating only one apple a day for a whole year.  He also had water but no tea.

The young monk lost a bit of weight the first few weeks of his practice, but it was not too much. He remained healthy and was able to do his work and his other practices assigned to him.  At the end of the year the Master asked him what he had learned. His reply:  “To enjoy one’s apple.”

Last week, I started cooking again, really cooking.

I’d forgotten how soothing it can be to have nothing more pressing than to make sure that the beans don’t burn. And I felt gratitude for the ability to stand for hours, despite small twinges in my back. Like Rosa Fiore, the heroine of Lily Prior’s La Cucina: A Novel of Rapture (Harper Collins 2000), I retreated to the kitchen after a tragedy. Rosa says “I had always loved my food: in those dark days it was all that could give me comfort. I did not emerge from my self-imposed exile in la cucina for a long time. I assuaged my grief by cooking, and cooking, and cooking some more.”*

“Self-imposed exile” … that phrase resonated with me. In order to focus, to create, there must be a withdrawing from the hectic outside world.

So in my own self-imposed exile, I started with chicken lasagna, using boneless, skinless chicken thighs, allowing the mushroom-laced sauce to cook longer and develop flavors more than if I’d used the bland chicken breasts called for in the original recipe. Then I moved on to green chile beef, a bit like pork chile verde. Of course, I whipped up a pot of pinto beans to go with the beef.

Next came orange chicken, a rather bastardized version of a traditional Chinese dish, but dynamite with the addition of a teaspoon of grated fresh orange zest. Roasted chicken slathered with garlic, ginger, and garam masala appeared on my table, the next day followed by a pot of chicken noodle soup using the leftovers, warm and spicy, just the thing for the chilly evenings of the last week.

Deviled eggs on Sunday for a neighborhood picnic, with a pinch of sweet curry powder and a hint of Texas Pete hot sauce. Another pot of beans, this time cooked with spinach and Great Northern beans, satisfied my urge for something really earth-bound, served with toasted, almost burned fresh country-style bread.

Chicken in Riesling showed up next – chicken’s just about the only meat within wallet range these days, isn’t it? Of course, that Riesling conjured up memories of France’s eastern border cuisine, so one night Tartiflette and a green salad served as dinner.

If all this wasn’t enough, I felt the urge for sweetness, too. So out came my custard cups for baked chocolate pudding, so rich in butter that each bite seemed to slip down my throat like a fresh oyster. And I yearned to make that rosemary-lemon crumb cake, too, using the fresh and resinous rosemary growing in big pots on my front porch, where they sit soaking up the last hot sunshine of the season.

But saving the best for last – that’s the definition of dessert – I bought five hard peaches last Saturday at the supermarket. In the flurry of everything else cooking in my kitchen, four days later I finally found the time to bake a peach pie.

As I cut away the rough, furry peach skins, I discovered brown mottled flesh in places. I salvaged what I could and purée some of the flesh in the food processor, along with a few tablespoons of water. The transformation from solid to liquid, from one form of being to another, always amazes me. I cooked the purée until it thickened, bubbling and spitting. Because the peaches tasted somewhat bland, I added a few teaspoons of peach schnapps to the thick purée and to the fresh peaches.

Each bite of that pie, with its crunch of the crisp crust, calls up a sense of reverence – for the lack of a better word.

I could say the same thing about everything else I cooked last week. All I grew was the rosemary for the lemon crumb cake and some of the peppers for the beef chile verde.

Just imagine everything that goes into making that happen, not just me in the kitchen seeking solace: the sunshine, the rain, the peach tree, the people who picked the peaches, the people who packed them, the people who trucked them to the market, the produce department employees who displayed them, the cashiers who checked me out, the sugar producers, the schnapps makers, the wheat growers, the flour millers, the cows who produced the milk for the cream and butter, the people who made the butter, the people who made the pie pan.

And I haven’t even covered everything that went into transforming those peaches into that pie. Much less a soul.

Fresh Peach Pie

Makes 1 9-inch pie

5 cups fresh peaches, peeled, seeded, and cut into thin slices
¾ cup water
4 ½ T. cornstarch
1 cup sugar
Pinch salt
1 t. pure vanilla extract
4 t. cup peach schnapps, divided
2 T. unsalted butter
1 pre-baked pie crust, preferably homemade, cooled

1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream, whipped and seasoned with 2 heaping T. confectioner’s sugar and ¼ t. vanilla.

Take 1 ½ cups of peach slices and purée them in a food processor or blender with the water. Add the purée to a medium-size pan along with the cornstarch, sugar, and salt. Stirring constantly, cook over medium heat until mixture thickens, bubbling and spitting. Remove from the heat, add vanilla, 2 t. peach schnapps, and butter. Stir until butter melts and is completely incorporated into the purée. Let cool.

Add 2 t. peach schnapps to the remaining sliced peaches. Mix in well.

Spread half the purée on the bottom of the prepared pie crust. Using a slotted spoon, place the peach slices evenly over the purée. Spread the rest of the purée over the top of the peaches. Refrigerate about one hour, then spread the whipped cream evenly over the top of the pie, stopping at the edge of the crust. Place about 6 long toothpicks upright evenly dispersed in the pie and cover with plastic wrap, resting the wrap on the toothpicks to keep it from sticking to the whipped cream.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

*Prior’s book, be forewarned, could be lumped in with Fifty Shades of Grey, only much tamer.

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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  1. Pingback: How Cooking Transforms the Aching Soul | Eating Healthy Living Well

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