Food and God: Cooking as a Spiritual Calling
With the holiday feeding frenzy behind us, our senior editor reflects upon the power of food to lift the human spirit and bring joy to the world.
By Mary Beth Crain
Today, cooking is the trendiest activity since the power workout. In fact, in this era of 30-minute meals, Food Challenges and mega-chefs, the kitchen seems to have supplanted the gym as the site of our primary exercise routines.
The overwhelming popularity of the Food Channel has made superstars out of plumpies like Mario Batali, Paula Deen, Ina Garten, a.k.a. The Barefoot Contessa, and those Two Fat Ladies, one of whom may she rest in peace. It has put more than a few pounds on once-diminutive Rachel Ray, and has made us wonder if skinnies like Sandra Lee and Giada di Laurentis are either bulimics or simply don’t eat most of what they serve to everybody else. (Actually, I knew Sandra Lee when I lived in L.A., and I can confirm that she does eat her richest “Semi-Homemade” creations, although not in huge quantities. She also works out like a demon and has a drive and metabolism that would burn up the San Gabriel mountains if you let her loose in them.)
The idea of cooking as a spiritual calling has been explored in lots of movies. “Like Water for Chocolate,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Chocolat,” and “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” are some of the film classics that explore the power of food to transmit love and transform lives. But it isn’t just the food itself that does the transforming. It’s the cook, whose good intentions inspire the alchemical miracle. When food is prepared with love and joy, with the pure motive of nourishing others, it becomes a blessing for all concerned.
I love to cook. I have done catering and once opened a restaurant. My greatest feat, and greatest folly, was single-handedly preparing the food for 125 people at a non-profit fund-raiser, and catering the event for free with the help of one other person. I couldn’t walk for two days afterwards, but it was still a thrill, getting all those compliments from the grateful guests. I am definitely happiest when I’m bustling around my kitchen, whipping up a great meal, and having friends to dinner.
The fact that I’m diabetic is my true cross to bear. It sucks, let me tell you, but I consider myself fortunate compared to the executive chef at L.A.’s two Ritz Carltons, whom I met at a Starbucks one morning. He had just been diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes and was so ill that he had been hospitalized and had to take two months off work. “And when I return, what am I going to do?” he worried. “My day goes from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. I not only create the dishes that my sous chefs prepare; I have to taste them. And the doctor says, uh uh. The most you can do is stick your little finger in it, and lick it off.” Of course, this poor man also loved to eat—what chef doesn’t? It was like cutting off an artist’s supply to colors, or telling a pianist he had to play with his ears plugged. Talk about the ultimate curse!
Anyway, diabetes doesn’t stop me from cooking and eating, but it has given me a greater appreciation for food, and for creating healthier meals that nourish the body along with the spirit. One book in particular made a huge impression on me: “The Sri Chinmoy Family Vegetarian Cookbook.” Dating from 1980, it may or may not still be in print, but if you’re looking for a way to maximize both the physical and metaphysical properties of food, I’d recommend trying to hunt it down. As the preface states, “In this book, we hope to share with our readers not only our favorite foods and how to prepare them, but also our feeling for the inseparable connection between outer and inner sustenance.”
Sri Chinmoy has been teaching people what I call “transcendent awareness cooking” for years. As India’s Consul General in San Francisco, head of a number of spiritual/meditation centers throughout the U.S., and spiritual guide to students in some 60 countries, the 75-year-old Indian philosopher/teacher looks at food from the standpoint of higher consciousness. “The most important aspect of cooking,” he maintains, “is its life-energizing reality.”
Did you know that food has a consciousness? That vegetables have awareness? That you, as a cook, have the power to either positively or negatively impact others on a spiritual level through the food you prepare and serve?
“The consciousness of food depends mostly on the consciousness of the cook,” says Sri Chinmoy. “It is true that food itself has its own consciousness, but since the cook is a human being, he has a more evolved consciousness than the food. So the cook can transform the consciousness of the food if he/she wants to do so. He can add to the consciousness of the food, or he can even bring the consciousness of the food into his own consciousness for enlightenment.”
What attitudes should we adopt while cooking? Sri Chinmoy advocates cultivating “an innocent feeling, along with purity” when cooking for children, a “very dynamic quality” when cooking for adults, and a “soft and tender feeling” when cooking for the aged. Regarding the latter, he adds, “You can try also to have the feeling that you are helping the old people to gain new life.”
And in Sri Chinmoy’s kitchen, cleanliness is definitely next to godliness. “Cleanliness is of paramount importance, purity is of paramount importance, and good feelings toward the pots and pans are of paramount importance,” he instructs. “Everything is of paramount importance from the beginning to the end when you cook.” Talk as little as possible while cooking; should you happen to interact with anyone who may not be so highly evolved, you run the risk of transmitting “lower consciousness” to the food. Sri Chinmoy also suggests that we adopt a “meditative consciousness” while preparing a meal, and that we meditate on our food before eating it. “If we meditate before we eat, then God’s compassion descends on us, and His compassion is nothing short of energizing power. So, along with the material food, if we can receive energizing power, then naturally we will get double benefit from the food.”
I gave Sri Chinmoy’s advice a try some years back, when I decided to cook a “higher consciousness” Indian meal. Now, I am, if I say so myself, fairly accomplished in the art of Indian cookery. Once, during a period of culinary fanaticism, I even made my own garam masala (curry powder), grinding up about 20 different spices by hand with a mortar and pestle. For this particular meal, I used a few tasty recipes from the “Family Vegetarian Cookbook,” along with some of my own. And for the first time in my life, I cooked with not only love, but with gratitude and humility as well.
Whereas before, cooking had been both a pleasure and an ego trip, for this meal I left my ego behind. I concentrated on my breath until I achieved a peaceful rhythm in the chopping of the vegetables. I thanked God for the food, and the food for giving us nourishment and new life. I worked not at my usual bustling pace, but with a happy serenity. And something like a miracle began to take place.
The kitchen seemed to be glowing, along with me. I had never had so much fun preparing a meal. Energy filled the room along with scents exotic and intoxicating. Everything went so smoothly that the dishes seemed to prepare themselves.
And the proof was in the rice pudding. My guests beamed as they wolfed down the potato and pea samosas, the cauliflower curry, the homemade apricot chutney, the chicken makhani, the yogurt raita and the dal pakora. The table seemed to pulsate with something more than simple gustatory satisfaction—something like unconditional love. Even though several people had brought friends whom I’d never met, a peculiar warmth overtook us, the feeling that we were all one.
“This is the best Indian food I have ever had!” exclaimed Daniel, an authority on ethnic cuisine.
“This is the best meal I have ever had!” said his wife.
And I think it was the best dinner I ever made. Even though it took place 19 years ago, I have never forgotten it. The memory still pushes my bliss button.
I feel, however, that I must issue a warning: cooking with love doesn’t always bring great results. Over the holidays I got an old American Home Magazine from 1937, in which I found, of all things, an ad for Royal Baking Powder featuring a recipe from none other than the mother of famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart. For some odd reason I was entranced by the tinted color photo of white-haired old Mother Earhart, looking maternal and saintly, presenting her beautiful platter of fried chicken, gravy and biscuits made with foolproof Royal Baking Powder. The promo read, “’Amelia’s Favorite Dish is My Fried Chicken and Biscuits!’ Says the Mother of the World’s Most Famous Woman Flyer.”
I think I was intrigued for three reasons. The first was that the issue was dated March, 1937, two months before Amelia Earhart’s fateful final flight. What a collector’s item!
The second was that the food looked scrumptious. And the third was that Mother Earhart looked like the embodiment of the loving cook. Damn, that ad worked! Suddenly, although I’d never made either fried chicken or biscuits in my life, I had to make Mrs. Earhart’s.
I invited my own mother over for the grand occasion. I was so excited! That afternoon I cooked with love, joy and anticipation. I coated the chicken with flour and egg and prepared it just the way Mother Earhart said to—frying it in oil first, and then cooking it over a low flame for 45 minutes to an hour. I made the biscuits, and then it was time for the gravy, which was to be made from the chicken drippings.
Well. The drippings were black and burned, the gravy turned out gray and revolting, and some of the chicken was still slightly red inside, even after an hour’s cooking. The biscuits were OK, but nothing to write home about. The only thing that was edible was the frozen corn that I’d nuked.
I had never before in my life made such a total, unmitigated disaster of a meal. Even my Chihuahua, Truman, turned up his nose at the chicken and stared at me as if to say, “And WHAT the HELL is THIS?”
“This corn is delicious!” my mother kept saying, as she pushed the rest of the meal to the far end of the plate. “And the chicken is very good too.”
“No it isn’t!” I snapped. “It’s disgusting!”
“Well, it isn’t your best,” she agreed.
At least there was dessert to look forward to—my famous pumpkin cognac pie. This is a pumpkin pie made with four eggs, heavy whipping cream, condensed milk, pecans, spices, candied ginger and cognac. To die for. I’d been making it for, like, 20 years. Only this time it turned out too heavy on the cognac.
“This pie is sort of bitter,” my mother announced tactfully.
I couldn’t figure out how the whole thing happened. Me, the great cook, creating such a fiasco. I finally decided that maybe God had decided to spare us. High food consciousness or not, that meal would have put our cholesterol on Mars.
There is a happy ending to my night of humiliation, though. I decided to bake the chicken for another hour, and it turned out great. Then I threw out the gravy and made one of my own, using a white sauce, paprika, salt, pepper and country sausage. It was a definite improvement and I re-served the meal to friends with happy results.
Anyway, the next time you’re making dinner, try adding the extra ingredients of love, joy and gratitude, with a dash of humility thrown in. Treat the food and all your utensils with love and respect. Work slowly and serenely, and meditate on all you have, and all you are about to give. Involve your kids in the process, too. Serve the meal with a big smile, say grace or have a moment or two of silence before you eat, and remember Sri Chinmoy’s words:
“Because food is life and life is God, both food and God are one.”
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain’s last piece for SoMA was House of Tiny Brains.
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