Top | The Culinate Interview

Edward Espe Brown

(article, Emily Puro)

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p(blue). Edward Espe Brown is a Zen priest, chef, cooking instructor, and author. His cookbooks include The Tassajara Bread Book and The Tassajara Recipe Book; he also contributed to The Greens Cookbook. He is the subject of filmmaker Doris Dörrie’s recently released documentary “How to Cook Your Life,” inspired by his 1997 book [%bookLink code=1573220388 "Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings"]. 

Why are Zen practice and cooking so compatible?
One of the basic things — which isn’t just for cooking but for other forms of work as well — is that Zen, since pretty much its inception in China, has emphasized work as a form of spiritual practice. Zen emphasizes attention to detail and taking care of things, being careful and sincere and thorough in your effort, and that seems as useful as anything in cooking. 

I think the part of cooking that’s emphasized in books and things is your genius or your creativity, and that’s all well and good. But cooking is a lot of work, so there’s that kind of encouragement to actually work and do something thoroughly and carefully. That means there’s not dirt in the salad, the rice is not raw, it’s not burned. When you care for things that way, you have some pretty good food, even if it’s not genius. 

[%image brown float=right width=400 caption="Espe Brown teaching a breadmaking class." credit="Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions"] 

There’s so much emphasis today on convenience foods. Do you think cooking has lost value in our society?
Yeah, I think it has, and I think that goes along with just generally the value of working with your body, working with your hands. For me, I find it very energizing and inspiring to do something with my hands. That may be just me, but apparently more than a third of the connection between the mind and the body is with the hands, in terms of sensory neurons and motor neurons from the body to the mind. So you become much more embodied and in a certain sense you’re much more alive and less living just in your head. You have a fuller existence, and your body has a different kind of well-being when you’ve actually done something.

Nowadays there’s so little respect for work, and so little valuing of it. People spend 12 or 16 years or more in school doing things with their heads, so that’s the only thing that’s valuable. The things you could do with your body aren’t passed on from generation to generation, so we grow up without the skills, whether it’s cooking or gardening or carpentry or plumbing or sewing or art or all kinds of things that have been a large part of the human culture. In some ways, it’s a kind of impoverishment. But maybe I’m just me and I’m missing something. 

How does being mindful change what we eat as well as how we eat?
Mindfulness is to be aware without judging good, bad, right, or wrong. Sometimes people use “mindful” to mean you do it like this, you don’t do it like that, but basically whatever you’re experiencing, whether it’s eating or walking down the street, a part of your awareness is studying carefully what you’re experiencing. That leads you to conclusions which are your own knowledge or wisdom based on your own careful study. That’s very powerful knowledge compared to what you read in a book. When I eat hydrogenated fats, I feel pretty bad. When you experience that closely enough, you don’t want to do it anymore. You’re noticing and it’s registering in your consciousness and then it changes your behavior. 

How can we be more mindful of our eating?
How to be more mindful is be rather more careful about actually tasting and noticing what you put in your mouth and experiencing what you’re eating and the feelings in your body, giving your attention to those things. 

I also think it includes being aware of enjoyment, and there’s a whole range of possibilities there, from disgust or distaste to mild pleasure to enjoyment to gluttony and lust and greed. At some point with food there can be a kind of excitement that just takes one over, and then it’s very hard to be mindful anymore, so part of it is not just studying what you eat but also how you eat. 

What advice do you give students who want to develop their intuition when it comes to cooking, rather than always having to follow a recipe?
In cooking classes I emphasize adding one ingredient at a time and tasting before and after, so you start to know for yourself what each ingredient is doing. If you just put everything in the pot and taste it, you don’t know why it tastes like it does. You don’t know what each ingredient is doing. If you add one ingredient at a time and taste it, you start to know what a spice or seasoning can do. 

What I tell people to develop their intuition is to actually taste things carefully and catalog what your experience is, and then that comes up without your asking for it. It’s in your body and your being, and that comes to you \[when you’re cooking\] and you know what you want to do. 

You emphasize the importance of maintaining very sharp knives. Why is that so important for a cook?
Obviously there are different kinds of cooks. I happen to really enjoy working with a sharp knife, so my cooking reflects that. For me, the basic thing is that cut surface releases flavor. If you bite into an apple, every bite of apple that you eat has all this skin on it. If you cut the apple in quarters and cut out the core and slice it, every slice of apple has all this inner fruit and a little thin piece of skin on the edge. The flavor just comes right off that cut surface and the apple tastes really good. This is true with all kinds of things. When you have the cut surface, people bite into things and there’s all this flavor. 


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What do you hope viewers will take away from the documentary?
I’m not really hoping for anything in particular. My interest has been to help people wake up, and waking up in this case means that when you taste what you put in your mouth and you study what taste is and what flavor is and what cooking is actually like for you, when you study that and you’re alive in that, then that’s something that’s woken up in your life. 

I’m interested in people waking up to the possibilities in food and cooking and nurturing and sustenance and well-being. That doesn’t mean necessarily that they cook, but that they wake up to some of the possibilities in their lives.

p(bio). Emily Puro is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

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