Cooking as a Spiritual Practice

It’s an old school exercise book, “190 ruled pages” it says on the front, with “nine-millimeter spacing.” The cover is tattered from age, a faded postbox red bound along its edge with a strip of woven tape. At the cover’s center is a box for the owner to insert name and subject. In hand-printed uppercase letters and blue pen are the words MRS HOLT’S RECIPES.

It was my mother’s book. She passed away not long ago. Amidst the painful business of sorting through her life, my father took it down from the shelf above the refrigerator. “I don’t know who else would want it,” he said as he handed it to me. In truth, my mother had nothing to do with its original compilation. As a boy of nine or ten, despairing at the cardboard box stuffed with recipes at the bottom of her pantry, I set about organizing them. With a set of colored pens and my best artistic flourish, I created chapters: casseroles; main dishes; large cakes; small cakes, slices, biscuits and confectionary; soups; and desserts. Each page was carefully numbered. Some recipes I handwrote, adding editorial comment here and there: “this one is good.” Most I stuck to the pages with adhesive tape. Everything found its place and the cardboard box was thrown out.

Of course, my mother’s style was never an ordered one. The book today bulges with recipes randomly placed or stuffed. There are casse­roles in the biscuits section and sweet and sour pork in desserts. There are copious recipes scribbled down at someone else’s table, each one a good idea at the time yet never made. The recipes for curried sausages and cod casserole—the ones I thought I’d gotten rid of—had reappeared. Each time I hold the book, cuttings and scraps, even whole pages, fall to the ground. It is everything she was: overflowing, erratic, generous, and all-encompassing. I have nothing else as fragile and nothing as robust. It’s like holding a sacred text.

“The keepers of recipes,” food historian Michael Symons writes, “are the makers of culture.” This is so collectively and individually. When I hold my mother’s recipes, I understand better who I am, where I am from and, in part, who I aspire to be. Amidst the pineapple meatballs, the apricot chicken, and the egg and bacon pie with Carnation milk, is part of my story. From the perspective of my spirituality, Mum embodied the ordinary goodness of God for me each day. This tattered old book is testament to her priestly service. In making its recipes, she hunted and gathered on my behalf; she served me and fed me; she connected me rou­tinely with God and those around me. In eating her food I was nourished, enfolded, forgiven, and enriched.

The idea that cooking can be a spiritual practice is not a stretch of the imagination; not if you think about it for any length of time. Only one who doesn’t comprehend food’s centrality to our lives—physically, culturally, socially, spiritually—could dismiss it as less. Regardless, as with all spiritual practices, to embrace the act of cooking in this way still requires intention and choice on our part.

Cooking as Ritual

As any home cook knows, most of what we do in the kitchen is mundane. It’s routine and constant. There are some who view cooking as a grand act of flourish and creativity. Usually such people cook only on special occa­sions when there’s a show to be had and an audience to impress. When it comes time for the dishes, they are nowhere to be seen. But most cooking is not like this. It’s the day-in, day-out business of making dinner. There is no show and no audience, just a few tired people looking as done as the overcooked chops. Each night’s routine is the much the same. The onions are chopped, the potatoes peeled, the carrots and celery diced, and the meat browned. There might be bread to slice, a salad to prepare, or rice to cook. There’s the setting of the table with its plates and knives and forks and glasses, and a jug of water. There’s the eating with its passing and sharing, its talking and its silences, sometimes its laughter or cross words. And then afterwards there’s the clearing away, the washing of dishes, the scrubbing of pans and wiping of benches. It’s done for another night.

No doubt, the routines of the kitchen can be drab, but somewhere in all of this is culture at its most raw, its most incremental. The routines may change subtly as life proceeds, yet somehow there is momentum that continues. “The repeated round of cooks is staggering,” Symons says. “Yet this endows human life with rhythm, which gets taken up in ritual, which grows into meaning.” Cooks are the keepers of ritual and the makers of meaning. Ritual is all about meaningful repetition. It’s about repeating those things that help us remember who we are and whose we are. It is so for the cook. It is so for those who eat and for those who wash the dishes and put the water jug back in the fridge.

Rituals have liturgies. There’s the call to worship: the call to turn off the television and come to the table. There’s the prayer of thanksgiving: the grace. There’s the feast and the conversation, the sermons and reflec­tions. There’s the obligatory call and response: “thanks for dinner” and “you’re welcome.” There’s the words of benediction and commissioning: the call to go in peace and do the dishes. But before it all begins, there is this simple prayer that I have used for more years than I can remem­ber. With the day’s provisions gathered on the benchtop, it only takes a moment:

May this food that you provide
and that I prepare
bring nourishment to our bodies
and renewal to our souls.
Amen

Cooking as Conversation with the Past

The Australian food writer Jill Dupleix has a sense of food I have long admired. Introducing one of her books, a collection of familiar recipes gathered from the past, she wrote these words:

“There are ghosts in our kitchens. You feel them at your back as you push the onions around in a little oil, when you crush the garlic or when you pull a cake from the oven and feel the heat against your face. These things have been done before, and will be done again: your actions are the actions of the centuries. You can hear them, too, in the whistle of a kettle, the gentle simmering of a stew, the sound of a broom sweeping the floor— the music of the kitchen, over the centuries.”

There is something about the preparation of food that ties us with the past. Bob Buford calls it “a conversation between the dead and the living.” And it’s ongoing. It is as though we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses in aprons. Together they cheer us on, correct our mis­takes, and remind us that, after all is said and done, it’s just dinner. These ghosts, or spirits as we people of faith call them, are present to us in the recipes we use, the cooking implements we prefer, the ingredients we judge to be non-negotiable, and the events that call us together.

There’s a recipe in my mother’s book that is as telling as it is simple. She titled it “Chicken Casserole a la Jean.” Jean was her older sister. As it happens I remember my mother writing it down at Aunty Jean’s table. Neither Mum nor Jean was an enthusiastic cook. Life was too full to be distracted by detail, especially in the kitchen. The recipe is brief:

1 chicken pulled to pieces
Fry onions and peppers and champignons
Add 1 tin of celery OR asparagus OR chicken soup
Add to chicken and into oven

I have never made Chicken a la Jean, and I probably never will. But there is something in the spirit of this recipe that hovers over me today. I am a serious cook, more serious and even skilled than my mother was, but I am always conscious of her presence when I cook. “That’ll do!” she would always say. When I am prone to make food more important than people, and to give the processes of preparation more time than I give to those who will eat it, I hear her say, “That’ll do!” In calling to mind those who have gone before us and listening for their voices in our kitchens, we are choosing to make our cooking a continu­ous act of service. Ultimately, it is not just about us. It is not even about our recipes or the locally-sourced ingredients, no matter how trendy or sustainable. It’s about the continuity of love. And in that, it is about God.

Cooking as an Act of Confession

It was twenty years ago that I first met the late Father Rick Curry. My be­loved and I showed up to a bookshop in Pasadena to hear the one-armed Jesuit speak about his book The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking. His un­expected ordination to priesthood was still a decade away. Content to be a Brother, he founded a school in New York City for disabled actors and the Dog Tag Bakery in Washington, D.C. to teach wounded veterans a craft. That evening, before a small and mostly unsuspecting crowd of onlookers, he created and kneaded a simple dough while speaking of his passions for bread, justice, and faith.

I was captivated that night, not by Curry’s disability or even his skill as a baker, but by his presence. Here in a secular bookshop surrounded by an audience more interested in bread that religion, he spoke easily about his spiritual journey. There was not a hint of awkwardness on his part or discomfort in those who listened. It was as though his breadmaking and faith were a whole, and so naturally part of him. In the introduction to his book, Curry outlined his own daily practice in his making of a loaf:

“When I make bread, I make an Examen of Conscience. After reading the recipe, I take a deep breath, relax, and recall that I am in God’s presence. I recall the last twenty-four hours and name the good things that have come into my life, and I thank God for them. After the dough has been mixed and begins to rise, I reflect on how I have participated in this new life, and beg God to show me how I am growing more alive in my spiritual life. I examine what my recent actions, omissions, thoughts, and desires tell me about my relationship to God, to myself and others in God. I examine how I have dealt with my family and coworkers. Have I spent any time in the last twenty-hours do­ing something generous for another? Did I harbor resentment? Have I held my tongue? Have I prayed for another’s need? Has my conversation been hurtful? Am I part of the problem or part of the solution? Have I been kind? Have I remembered that God is lovingly watching over me? When the evaluation is completed, I take what I have learned about myself and place it in God’s understanding hands. I bring to Him the larger needs that I feel at the moment. I speak to him as to a friend who delights in my company and under­stands and loves me. I talk to God about my fears, hopes, and joys. I ask God to let me be open to life and love. And when the smell of the fresh-baked bread fills my kitchen, I let my spirit be filled with gratitude and praise for God and for all the things in my life. I thank God for the gift of bread and the gift of life.”

There is something quite beautiful in this, and a reminder that in the routine tasks and ingredients of the kitchen are the most daily pointers to our dependence, our human need, our frailty, and the connections that sustain us. No matter what else our days hold—whatever is glorious and important, hard and defeating, fleeting and trivial—when we cook we are brought back to life at its most rudimentary. We bow our heads and confess again that all of life is gift. All praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ. 

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This is an extract from Simon Carey Holt’s new book, Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life (Cascade Books, 2018). You can order it here, here or here.

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