My favorite cookbook (you can tell because it is no longer in one piece) is The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown. Ed Brown is a Buddhist, a Zen priest. I don't really know anything about Buddhism. I do think his California Buddhism might look quite different from Eastern Buddhism but, you know, it's definitely not Catholic. Another favorite cookbook is Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings by the same author. This one is a collection of recipes and essays interspersed. The recipes are good but I like the book for the essays. A short disclaimer before I continue: everything I know about Buddhism and Zen mediation comes from these two books. If any real Buddhists are reading this, I would be most interested in hearing your thoughts.
The first essay in Tomato Blessings is "When You Wash the Rice, Wash the Rice." Be present to the rice. Notice how your hands are moving. Notice how the water is running. Notice the nourishment you will give to your family. Do this simple thing very well. Another essay, "The Sincerity of Battered Teapots," encourages respect for things: "Carry one thing with two hands rather than two things with one hand." But reflects on the authenticity and vulnerability of the teapots not treated this way. And, at the end, one of my favorites, "Eating Just One Potato Chip." Slowing done and eating one potato chip with awareness you discover the truth: potato chips are gross.
Ed Brown's bread book is similar. He encourages making bread with your whole body, "When I cook, another body comes alive . . . A body alive to flavors and fragrance, a body ready to touch and be touched, a body which eats with eyes as well as mouth . . . Hands awaken, boundless with their own knowledge, picking up, handling, putting down." I'm really cherry-picking, here. It's difficult to briefly summarize two books that have had such a profound influence on my life in the kitchen and beyond. These books have taught me to cook. Brown's style is very casual. The instructions are not always very precise because he doesn't want you fretting over how much onion to put in the soup. Put in enough onion and be done with it. I've gotten over a lot of perfectionist hangups reading these books. I've come to think about other chored differently, as well. It's not always easy but sometimes I do remember to think, "When you fold the diapers, fold the diapers."
Does all of this sound a bit loopy? Are you concerned that I'm losing touch with my Catholic faith? I'm not too worried. The comforting thing about believing in absolute truth is that you can wander afield a bit without fear. Because you know Truth you can look for truths in all sorts of places. To be honest, it's also handy to be married to a theologian. I can check my thinking with Eric anytime I want. (And, in case you were wondering, the bread book was a Christmas present from him the year we were engaged and the other book was his before we were married.)
These two cookbooks give great importance to some of the most simple and fundamental aspects of life. Baking bread, sharing a meal. Fasting and feasting. These cookbooks have challenged me to slow down and work with care and reflection. If these were books about prayer they would be teaching "recollection." As I've said before, these daily, simple tasks are my vocation. God wants me to do them well. St. Therese of Lisieux, whose feast day we just celebrated, was a great champion of holiness in small things. To do the small things well is to be on the path to holiness. I suppose I could just read Story of a Soul and not worry about my Buddhist cookbooks, but I think the Lord knows that I need to be taught the same basic concepts over and over again in lots of different ways. I've read Story of a Soul three times, which is about how many times I've read the essays in Tomato Blessings.
Buddhist reflections are not sufficient. The life of faith requires more. But I do think I can read these essays and feel no qualms about deriving encouragement from them. My life is more Catholic than Buddhist and I read Edward Espe Brown through the lens of Truth.