Cooking as a Spiritual Practice by Joanna E S Campbell
My mom stopped cooking in 1982, later saying that it was one of the best decisions she ever made. I have vague memories of her cooking. When I tell people that I mostly grew up eating out at restaurants, I get the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me look. We all have what feels like normal, and this was certainly true for me. It wasn’t that I thought all families ate out every night. Dining out was what my family did, and it worked for us. The downside is that I never learned how to cook for myself. Sure, I could open a can of Campbell’s soup or make toast, but anything beyond that, and I was stumped.
When I married at 21, I wanted to be a good wife and cook for my husband while he worked nights at a gas cap factory. This resulted in calling the Grant County fire department twice, fighting one small kitchen fire, and suffering through dozens of culinary disasters. I learned that if I stuck to a recipe, I was golden, but even this process was painstaking. Learning how to cook on your own is like learning a foreign language and then attempting to speak a few words. You feel like you have a mouth full of marbles. My husband, on the other hand, had what I thought was a magical gift bestowed upon him. He could make gourmet meals out of nothing without the use of cookbooks or family recipes. I marveled at his ability to intuitively know which ingredients work well together. I felt like this knowledge was far beyond my reach in a distant galaxy. I was attempting brain surgery when my natural gift was singing operatic arias. Chris assured me and told me that his cooking skills developed out of necessity over years of experimentation. I formed a safety net by compiling successes in a black binder and returning to these like a devoted pupil. These were recipes I found in women’s magazines at the doctor’s office, my grandmother’s nursing home cookbook, and a southern cookbook my mom gave me. Most of the recipes involved deep-frying, rolling balls of ground beef in bread crumbs, or adding lots of pepper to a few limp ingredients. They were simple, unimaginative, fairly unhealthy and all very doable. I was on the road to cooking fluency.
Sixteen years later and newly married to another man who knows his way around a kitchen, I am now what many would call a foodie. I collect cookbooks as if they’re ancient treasure holding mystical and tantalizing roadmaps for extraordinary gastronomic pleasure. I am one of those people who savor the taste of place. I like to know where my food comes from, support local farmers and markets, and carefully select food based on its story. Three years in a row, I organized an heirloom tomato tasting festival for the nonprofit I was working for in central Arkansas. I couldn’t have been happier researching and tracking down gems like Cherokee Purple, Arkansas Traveler, and Mortgage Lifter. More so, it was even more of a treat to visit with the farmers and listen to their stories of life in rural communities.
When I was a child, I had a secret hiding place in the woods behind my house. There was a creek, which I later realized was a drainage ditch. For me, the concrete tunnel feeding into it was integrated with the natural landscape, and I never questioned its presence in the forest. In fact, I enjoyed climbing through the tunnel and scrawling pictures with sedimentary rocks on the curved walls. My brothers and I would yell in the tunnel, delighting in our echoes. This place in the woods was also host to an important imaginary world. The world of my making centered on pretending to be a farmer and self-sufficient wood’s person. I had my plot of imaginary vegetables, sturdy tree limbs to serve as farm implements, and rocks for grinding acorns. I collected clay in the creek to make vessels. This world was incredibly fulfilling, and I’m not sure why or how it developed except that I was born with an innate desire to be connected to the land. I think a lot of us are. Some of us are lucky to have special places that are all our own, where we can be whoever we want to be in our imagination.
Decades passed before I actually learned how to plant a garden and care for it with a basic understanding of ecology and biodiversity. I’ve also learned that farming is not well suited for solitary types who think they can do everything themselves. In order to survive, it seems, you have to know your neighbors, have a relatively good relationship with them, and recognize the importance of interdependent connections. I spent several seasons working on an organic farm in New Brunswick, Canada. The days I spent shoveling manure by myself or marking lines for planting in the rain or digging row upon row of parsnip, I would begin to wonder about the fluidity of my sanity. They say that when you sing in church, you pray twice. When you have help in the garden, something similar happens. There is a communal rhythm in our shared efforts. Singing often occurs, lifting the spirit even more to a place where the impossible suddenly feels possible. We will plant the garden this year. We will accept what comes whether it’s too much or too little rain, pigweed, or pests. We will harvest thousands of turnips and potatoes. We will share this load together, and we will celebrate and feast together. Sharing in these tasks is a true thanksgiving.
On a few occasions, I smuggled a small pumpkin in my luggage to proudly deliver the fruits of my labor to my family in Arkansas. Handing the pumpkin over, my eyes were bright with wonder, and nothing could shake my certainty that this was the best gift ever. My parents graciously received the orange vegetable as parents often do with their child’s drawing du jour. I puzzled why the pumpkin just sat there on the kitchen table for days instead of being prepared, and then I realized I was expecting my parents to miraculously turn into different people: people who cook at home.
While my mom drew a line in the sand for home cooking, there was a special place for baking bread. These memories are vivid, and they include standing in the kitchen with her, sitting on a stool and kneading the tough mounds of dough. For Easter, we made pretzels from scratch. Laying one arm of dough over the other, my mom explained the shape’s symbolism with the cross. We sprinkled rock salt on top of the pretzels and baked them until they were chewy on the inside. My mom recently gave me the scooped wooden bread bowl passed down from her grandmother. I can’t help but wonder about the grandmothers I never knew when I look at that bowl. I wonder about its many stories. I feel connected to generations of women in my family each time I use it.
I recently started experimenting with gluten free baking. I thought it would be nice to offer an alternative to the rice cracker at communion for those parishioners with gluten allergies. Talking on the phone with my mom, I shared my nervousness about baking gluten free bread. Our choir director told me that the pumpkin buckwheat loaf I made tasted like a packed beaver dam. My mom stopped making bread after the sourdough starter began crawling out of the refrigerator door each time she opened it. She said it looked like it was trying to escape. She assured me about my baking fears and said, “Oh, you know I used to make communion bread all the time for St. Mark’s. It was my thing. Do you want my recipe? I can give it to you right now.”
“Um, okay. Sure!”
“Okay. First, go to the freezer aisle of the grocery store. Then pick up a tube of Pillsbury French bread. Bring it home. Open the tube. Split the dough in half. Shape it into a round loaf. Use a knife to put a little cross on it. Stick it in the oven. Done.”
“Oh yes! When Steve and Sharon Kemp approached Father Glusman about getting married, they said they wanted homemade communion bread for their wedding. Ted told them they needed to talk to Joanna Seibert because she made the absolute best communion bread.”
I’m fairly certain Father Glusman went to his grave not knowing my mom’s famous communion bread came out of a can, and this is probably a good thing given the widespread knowledge in the community for his passion for cooking.
We all have fantasy lives. Mine included pretending to be a farmer when I was a child. I never expected to learn how to cook, but it happened through trial and error in what often felt like a glacial pace. My mom’s fantasy life involves shopping at her favorite store, Williams Sonoma. For a person who doesn’t cook and is a survivor of cooking for young children who inhaled their food within minutes, my mom loves shopping at this store. Loves. They know her by name. This must be some kind of spiritual therapy for her. Williams Sonoma is a shiny, clean culinary wonderland, full of possibilities, possibilities that have been shaped into nonstick Cathedral cake molds, peppermint bark, and gleaming copper cookware. There is every color of the rainbow Le Cruset pots and pans. You have your choice of not just one artisan salt, but four or five. My mom’s primary purchases tend to be holiday treats like hand painted sugar cookies or chocolate covered vanilla marshmallows. These are for the grandchildren. Tea towels, soaps, and candles are also a safe bet. To this day, the chestnut candle is my favorite. One of our rituals is checking out the clearance items at William Sonoma and then resting with our purchases at the Starbucks next door. Green tea latte for me. Iced decaf Americano with two Sweet n’ Lows and no whip for her.
I have no feelings of remorse around my mom’s decision to stop cooking. The memories of baking with her are more important than any homemade meals I missed out on. I’ve been thinking lately that her decision was a natural response to a larger social phenomenon in American culture. The popularity of cooking shows leads me to think cooking has become a spectator sport. We love to watch people create beautiful, delicious meals. Never mind that a ton of planning, organizing, underpaid interns, lighting, shoppers, and designers went into producing the perfect looking kitchen sets. The popularity of stores like William Sonoma is a testament for an underlying hunger in American culture. The desire to create culinary masterpieces is obvious. With all of the exciting gadgets and creative kitchen toys now available for purchase and with the plethora of cooking shows, why aren’t more people cooking at home? Maybe they are. My guess is that many of us are struggling with what my mom struggled with as a young mother. I think so much of the struggle is with time. Living the Julia Child life requires a radical renovation of one’s concept of time. All those fancy gadgets require some forethought and planning. Cooking requires a space of quiet in the soul to wonder about possibilities. Imagination and inspiration grow out this place. How do we structure our lives for this internal place bearing fertility? Shall we take a Buddhist moment and meditate on the vastness of our kitchens, on the life force pulsating, the umbilical cord of generations of humans providing, for better or worse, for the people they share a space with? Most growth begins with small steps forward. Shall we step forward together and share a meal?
Perhaps we could start with a homemade pretzel.
Seibert Family Easter Pretzels
1/8 cup hot water
1 package active dry yeast
1 ½ cups warm water
1/3 cup brown sugar
5 cups flour
coarse kosher salt
Heat oven to 475. In a large bowl, mix the hot water and yeast until the yeast dissolves. Stir in the warm water and the brown sugar. Slowly add 5 cups of flour to the mixture, stirring constantly. Continue stirring until the mixture is smooth and does not stick to the sides of the bowl. Put the dough on a lightly floured board. Dip your hands in the extra flour. Knead the dough until it is stretchy and smooth. Push it down and away from you with the palms of your hands. Turn the dough as you work.
Grease two cookie sheets very well. Sprinkle each with coarse kosher salt. Set the sheets aside. Pinch off a piece of pretzel dough about the size of a golf ball and shape it into a pretzel.
Fill a frying pan with water. For each cup of water in the pan, add 1 tablespoon of baking soda. Bring the water to a gentle boil ( a few bubbles). Use a spatula to lower each pretzel into the frying pan. Count very slowly to 30. Then lift the pretzel onto the greased and salted cookie sheet. Repeat until all the dough is used.
Sprinkle kosher salt on top of the pretzels and bake them in the oven for 8 minutes or until the pretzels are golden.