Friday, March 12, 2010

Zen and the Art of Mozzarella Maintenance

There are of course many ways to pray.

In contemplative life, at least as its practice has been handed down by saints and citizens alike, there is ultimately no distinction between times of prayer and times of activity. Both are works of God accomplished as a result of our consent to God's presence and action in and through us. In St. Augustine's famous formulation: "Love God, and do what you will."

Some activities, of course, seem more apt to stop mindfulness in its tracks than to cultivate it. I am convinced that this is why God created commuting by car. For one person, skiing may be a prayerful expression of God's presence in nature and their own wondrously made body, while for another it may be a mere exercise in conquering fear.

For me, that place of pure awareness is pizza.

Or to be more specific, making pizza. A couple of years ago, I announced that I was taking on the bulk of the cooking responsibilities in our house in order to ratchet up my contribution to the domestic economy. My ulterior motive at the time was the ability to justify the purchase of one of the cool, artisanal Japanese cooking knives I had been surreptitiously eying online. (I am painfully aware that my motives are an admixture of the proverbial weeds and wheat.) That knife is still sitting in its box, but the more mundane version purchased at the same time is now the nexus of a host of kitchen stories and handmade meals.

At first, cooking from scratch added to the stresses of the day. This was true despite our collection of cookbooks promising great food in a matter of minutes (I quickly developed a formula for deciphering how long that recipe would actually take me to execute). After a long drive home, the last thing I was ready to face was a large onion asking to be chopped.

The something interesting happened. Cooking, unaccustomed as I was to its rhythms and requisite skills, allowed me to take my mind off of the day's events, the work I hadn't gotten done, the state of the world. It demanded complete concentration. Anything else resulted in scars and burn marks. Cooking a meal gave me a tremendous sense of accomplishment and also a feeling of completion. At the office the pile on my desk simply grew taller each day. I would finish a meal with a certain well-earned tiredness that stopped well short of mental and emotional exhaustion.

Then something truly remarkable happened. I found "the zone."

As my skills improved and I was able to grasp the culinary rudiments, the cooking-related anxiety itself evaporated like the white wine alcohol in Giada's recipe for "spaghetti with clams." The mental effort required was just enough to keep me out of my head and away from mulling the problems of the day. But not enough to get the analytical gears grinding too hard. I could manage two dishes simultaneously, at least most of the time. I could chop like a slower-motion replay of the folks on the food network; focused yet calm. I knew how the samurai must have felt while training.

Well, not quite. I have some grasp of how to invite mindfulness in the kitchen, but no culinary greatness, or even genuine average-ness.

Except when it comes to pizza. At some point in our marriage, an electric counter-top pizza maker came to live with us. Once a week or so, I take a hiatus from slavishly following recipes to concoct something we call "easy pizza." It really did start out that way: easy. Pre-shredded cheese from the dairy aisle, those little pouches of pepperoni. Then my college-level training as a jazz improviser kicked in.

At first, it was a little saute'd something just to distill the flavor before it went on the top. Then it was trying Vodka sauce in place of the usual kind. Next thing you know, I was crumbling potato chips up in plastic bags, or sliding a raw egg onto the top of the pizza to cook there. I had become that social type described by the sociologist Claude Levi-Strauss: the bricoleur, surveying the fridge for comestible flotsam and jetsam with which to risk my one culinary accomplishment: the coveted "thumbs-up" from my daughter.

So far, my bricolage has not, for the most part, taken me out of "the zone." Pizza-making has retained it's place as a time of mindfulness and the gratefulness, in Brother David Steindl-Rast's spiritual equation, that flows from it. Sometimes, Maddie joins me and pizza-making takes on a communal dimension. She spoons on sauce or slices cheese with her own blunt knife. Mostly, she's there to poach her favorite ingredients.

I don't cook every day, but enough to do my share and generate leftovers. Of course, I try to be mindful in everything I do, but the fact is that my mind still tends to wander when I vacuum or collect the garbage. Discovering cooking as a contemplative space is a real gift. As are the comments I get from my wife and the thumbs-up I get from Maddie when I hit on something particularly tasty.

Hey, the proof is in the pie.

- monk about town

Contemplative dad tip for the day: A couple of years ago, in place of the usual bedtime songs, I started singing Maddie songs that have been important to me, mostly standards like those from Gershwin, Kern, and the Beatles. It didn't take that long before, somewhat to my surprise, I discovered she could sing them back, even if the lyrics in some cases remained a bit beyond her grasp. I hope these songs will continue to be special to her and that she'll sing them to her own kids some day. You never know when a wonderful tradition will germinate unbidden.

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