a supreme meal

Who feeds your family?  Who’s given the responsibility of preparing the most ritualistically important meals of the year?

For many, the values that inform this decision probably still mirror the upbringing of famed food writer Raymond Sokolov who writes in his recent memoir Steal the Menu:

“My father would have shuddered at the thought that he was preparing me for a life as a gourmet.  He had no respect for friends of his who cooked as a hobby or made a big fuss about fancy food.  He made it clear to me that the meal he’d just eaten at the man’s house gave him doubts about the state of his host’s masculinity.  Certainly, the fellow was wasting his time on an unserious obsession.”

Indeed, the democratization of who cooks is a modern and a bit paradoxical phenomenon.  With the exception of professional chefs, homecooking has been the exclusive domain of women and servants (a distinction between the two being somewhat unnecessary).

If a person of privilege was responsible for feeding himself, there must be something wrong with his upbringing, finances, or morals.

There’s another view of course.

I especially like the way it’s articulated in Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life that Matters:

“The position of the cook is one of the highest and most important in the Zen monastery.

“It was the Zen cook’s duty, [the thirteenth-century founder of the Japanese Soto Zen tradition] Dogen wrote, to make the best and most sumptuous meal possible out of whatever ingredients were available – even if he had only rice and water.”

This concept is not exclusively Eastern, of course.  Those more comfortable with the Judeo-Christian narrative should hear echoes of our own ritualized meals in Dogen’s ancient instruction to Zen monastics.

Imagine how Sokolov’s father would have reacted if his morally dubious host stripped down and washed his feet before serving him the most costly bread and wine ever consumed.  A guy might be killed for that sort of thing.

In the weeks ahead we’ll be called upon to share many meals.  And, in our modern, post-feminist/racial/classist world, we’ll all find ourselves serving and being served.

Rice and water, bread and wine, turkey and stuffing.  The menus will be irrelevant.  What we’ll remember is the seriousness, thoughtfulness, graciousness of our cook.

“On one level, Dogen’s ‘Instructions to the Cook’ is about the proper way to prepare and serve meals for the monks.  But on another level it is about the supreme meal – our own life which is both the greatest gift we can receive and the greatest offering we can make.”

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