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A Buddhist master had a cook who was a simple man. One day, the cook burned his hand while preparing a meal and suddenly achieved the Buddhist goal of enlightenment, as the nature of all existence became clear to him. Excited, he asked the master what he should do next.
"Keep cooking," came the answer.
The story comes from Tibetan lamas by way of Lama Surya Das, a Buddhist teacher and author in Cambridge, who values its elemental wisdom: You don't need a house of worship to encounter the spiritual; it's found in the pattern of daily living, such as cooking the food we need. (Emily Dickinson made the same point in a poem, though not about food, that Das likes to cite: "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church / I keep it, staying at Home / With a bobolink for a Chorister / And an Orchard, for a Dome.")
The story of the cook is Das's contribution in a forthcoming anthology, Bread, Body, Spirit, which draws on numerous traditions and their takes on eating. Explaining the motivation behind the volume, editor Alice Peck, writes in the introduction: "Everybody needs to eat, to be nourished. It's simple. It's unending. Food presents us with a vast opportunity: through our experiences of food we can sustain a constant connection to the Sacred that pervades our lives."
Glimpsing the divine in a hot dog won't surprise devout believers who say grace before every meal; gratitude for plenty in a world where many starve is a recognition of blessing. Yet Bread, Body, Spirit includes contributions from outside organized religion. "Since You Asked," a poem by Williams College English professor Lawrence Raab, comes from the pen of a self-described agnostic.
The poem ponders an imaginary dinner attended by "everyone you expected, then others as well: / friends who never became your friends, / the women you didn't marry, all their children. / And the dead―I didn't tell you / but they're always included in these gatherings."
Reached on his cellphone during what Dickinson might call a moment of mundane spirituality, walking his dog, Raab says that as a nonbeliever, "what's sacred [in the poem] would be the communion of one's self and one's family and friends, extended imaginarily outward" to include phantoms from an existence that might have been. The only overt reference to religion and food in this particular poem is a playful mention about multiplying "wine and chickens." Tweaking the Christian story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish was a bit of "sly humor" aimed at his Jewish brother-in-law, Raab explains.
The spiritual backgrounds of the contributors are as diverse as cuisine. Das's biography, for example, contains as much kosher as karma. Born Jeffrey Miller in Brooklyn 57 years ago and bar mitzvahed on Long Island, he quips that he's "Jewish on my parents' side." Study and tragic experience (he knew one of the students shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State in 1970) drew him to Eastern religions, and he became a Buddhist.
Julius Lester is the son of a Methodist minister who found Judaism in midlife. His essay in the book, "Braiding Challah," describes how he used to bake the Shabbat (Sabbath) bread on Fridays. A retired academic who lives in Belchertown, Lester had been intrigued by Judaism since learning as a boy that his maternal great-grandfather was Jewish. As an adult, he had a vision in which he was Jewish and happy. He converted in the early 1980s.
His essay highlights one of the many ritualized uses to which religions put food. "Cooking for Shabbat each week," Lester writes, "I am becoming a part of the Jewish people. Every dish I cook has been cooked and eaten on Shabbat for centuries." But it's his second sentence that leaps at a reader: "Judaism is not in the knowing; it is in the physicality of doing."
Downplaying knowledge seems an odd stance for an intellectual writing about an intellectually storied religion. Yet in an interview, Lester noted that Jewish ethical teaching stresses mitzvot, the commandments to moral conduct.
His is also one of the more mouth-watering entries in the book. "I especially like the Sephardic dishes like fassoulia, a simple but delicious stew of beef, green beans and pearl onions, or lamb tangine, a lamb stew with prunes and almonds."(Rich Barlow The Boston Globe 2008-05-31)
After the grueling work of hunting and gathering, small groups of humans sat together around a roaring fire. They shared food and stories, developing unity and group spirit. Food was survival and community, and the people knew where the food came from and the effort it took to get it home. Today, in the world of vending machines, instant pudding and microwave meals, things often aren't as clear. Peck, whose other anthology, Next to Godliness: Finding the Sacred in Housekeeping, has gathered articles, poems and essays from publications throughout the world that center on how people honor the act of growing, preparing, eating or abstaining from food. Memoirist and food writer Betty Fussell describes battling a live eel that has a Rasputinlike will to live. Essayist Alison Luterman considers how " every strawberry she had ever eaten had been picked by calloused human hands." Islamic studies professor, Omid Safi, reminisces about the gooey, sweet, date omelets his mother rose early to cook on Ramadan mornings to fortify the family before the day-long fast. Each section of the book is a meditation focused on the different facets of gardening, feasting, fasting, serving, cooking, eating, composting and being grateful.(cosmik-debris.net Blog)
Have you ever had a meal that completely transcended the food―one that perhaps even bordered on a spiritual experience? What was it about that meal that blurred the lines between sacred and every day? Was it the beauty of the food itself? The fractal swirls of color and texture in a sliced onion or beet? Was it a meal where the food served as a ritual extension of a holiday, like dipping warm challah into salt or honey on Shabbat? Or was it the company and conversation that heightened the meal to the next level?
These are the questions asked in Alice Peck's new interfaith food anthology, Bread, Body, Spirit.
As someone who majored in Environmental Studies with a focus on Religion (yay, Middlebury!), I've read more than my fair share of self-indulgent, eco-spiritual anthologies. Granted I loved them, but if I wasn’t entrenched in that world, they would have completely bored me. With an eye for emotion over academia and a collection of powerhouse contributors like Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, Thich Nhat Hahn and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Bread, Body, Spirit offers a completely accessible and engaging set of short stories, poems and religious texts that made me laugh and feel well equipped with "Torah" to bring to my own dinner table.(Leah Koenig Hazon: The Jew and The Carrot Blog 2008-08-01)
Alice Peck is an innovative editor and writer. She serves as a consultant to many published authors and produced screenwriters. She spent years writing, developing and acquiring material for broadcast and cable television as well as feature films before devoting herself to writing and editing books.
Serious reading...but very good information. I have to really be ready to sit quietly and concentrate. Not a "light" read.Published 15 months ago by grammiegail
This book was beautifully written. I fond insight in the words of the author -I was looking for something that worked with me on removing veil between sacred and secular and I... Read morePublished 23 months ago by joy