Naturally Mindful

Slow Cooking: A Sustainable and Mindful Food Preparation Ritual

Consider the last meal you ate. What were the ingredients used to prepare it? Where did they come from in the world? How did they make their way to you? To what extent did you engage your senses as you ate the meal? For today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday, we’ll be participating in a cooking ritual together. Some aspects of this practice conjure up for me the scene in the TV show Portlandia where the characters are trying to determine not only the specific farm from which the chicken originated, but also its life story. The point of the ritual, however, is not only to allow us to see where our food comes from, it is also designed to invite us to practice attention and to see the fullness of life behind even a simple behavior such as eating. It is a spiritually-centered practice, not a full-time lifestyle recommendation, as I think it could become yet another way we might begin to restrict and over-regulate our lives.

For this practice, I suggest choosing a simple meal with bold ingredients that can be cooked in 30 minutes or less (my title references the internal practice, not the cook time)! You will be eating the dish very slowly, so either find one that will taste palatable even if it comes closer to room temperature, or one that you can serve yourself from repeatedly in small portions. If it suits you, consider choosing a dish that you’ve “invented” or one that has been passed down to you. You can conduct this ritual on your own or invite others who are willing to participate to cook and/or dine with you.

Supplies

Food items (the first part of the practice includes some internet research, so make a list of every ingredient as well to use while the food is properly stored).

Recipe

Paper or electronic map of the world with pins/tag capacity

Bowl/plate and eating utensils for which you know the origins

Step 1:

Using your list of food items, research the origin of each ingredient. Try to determine not only the place of origin of your food item, but also the journey it had to take to reach you. How long ago was it last in “nature?” In what type of vehicles was it carried from its point of origin to your house? Who grew, picked and processed it? Where and how did you buy it? Take careful notes.

Step 2:

Using your notes, pin each place of origin on your map. How much of the world was involved in creating your dish? What is your reaction to this knowledge? Use your imagination to recreate each item’s travels to your location. Connect with the people, places, smells and sights that existed along the way.

Step 3:

Before you begin to cook the dish, spend some time with the recipe. Where did you get it? If you created it yourself, what inspired you? If it was passed down to you, what is its history? Who were the people that made it for you in the past? In what context did you enjoy it? What memories does it evoke?

Step 4:

Set up your cook station and lay out your ingredients. Prep each ingredient individually—for instance, cut up veggies separately. Focus on your breathing and on the physical experience of interacting with each item. Next, prepare the recipe according to the directions. If there is any sort of a wait time during cooking, use the time to focus your senses—what are you hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching as you prepare the food? Cooking is an incredibly stimulating experience that taps into all of our senses! Breathe into the experience and see how your body reacts to each aspect of cooking the meal.

Step 5:

When the food has been prepared, set a place for yourself and anyone who will be joining you. Take a moment to note the origins of the eating utensils and plates/bowls you’ll be using. Serve yourself whatever portion of food you can eat very slowly without it losing flavor as it cools or warms up to room temperature. When everything is ready, start by closing your eyes and smelling the food. What is the first scent to hit you? What small notes are hiding out, taking their time to make themselves known? Sit in appreciation of the scent-bath the food is providing, noting any reaction your body has to the sensations you are experiencing. Next, move on to hearing. Are there any sounds emanating from the dish? Listen, and listen again. Where in your body do you notice sensation? Now, move on to sight. Open your eyes and drink in the full array of colors, shapes, textures and gradients that present themselves in the dish. Where is it smooth? Where is it rough? What colors stand out? What colors do you see when you look again? Which shapes predominate? Where is the form ill-defined? Where may steam be rising? Liquid pooling? Note each aspect of the dish piece by piece, and then take in the experience as a whole, noting your physical reactions. Move now to taste, preparing one small bite. Before you eat it, take another moment to smell, listen and look at how the food has changed in form now that it is on your utensil. Slowly eat the first bite, pausing to note both the flavors the food imparts as well as the sensation of touch as it enters your mouth and you chew it. Continue to eat the dish, chewing each bit at least 20 times and pausing after each bite to examine how your body is responding to the experience. As you eat the dish, honor your body’s sensation of hunger as well as your possible fullness. When you feel satiated, discontinue your eating and take some time to reflect on the experience as a whole.

bowl free
Banana-oat bowl!

Reflections

I engaged in the mindfulness practice I created with a banana-oat dish I love. This dish brings back memories from my undergraduate experience. Our cafeteria occasionally had visiting chefs, one of whom introduced me to the deliciousness of Bananas Foster. My spinoff is missing the rum and the sugar, but has the buttery sweetness in a wholesome, protein-rich package.

In researching the ingredients, which include Greek yogurt, dates, butter, rolled oats, and bananas, I was surprised to learn that the butter I’d purchased had a longer trip to me than everything else, save the banana. The banana was the only ingredient that originated outside of the U.S.; it was grown in Guatemala. Bananas are Guatemala’s top export. In reading about the history of banana imports to the U.S., I felt sadness at the exploitation that has occurred for the workers who produce the crop. After a cursory search, I was not successful in locating a local place where I could buy fair-trade bananas. This exercise was worth it to me if for no other reason that it caused me to realize the foods I’ve been eating for decades without any sense of concern (e.g., non-animal products), are also susceptible to forces which I’d rather resist. Tropical fruits are my favorite, so I have more work to do to try to find a way to source them as ethically as I can (suggestions welcome!). The oats I used seemed to be at least distributed the closest to me, but the origin of the product itself was a bit murkier; they may be grown in Canada. I was happy to learn that oat production uses less fertilizer and weed killer than other grains and may have less of a negative impact on the soil as well.

When I added all my pins to the map to represent each place from which my ingredients originated, I thought about the many miles traveled and fossil fuel energy it took to get the food to my house. I’ve been frequenting a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm this summer for my vegetables. It takes a while to drive to it, but it is nothing compared to the thousands of collective miles over which my food had to pass in order to unite in my simple dish. The bowl I used to plate my dish is sustainable and is hand-made from coconut in Hawaii.

In cooking the food, I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to remain present with what I was doing. My mind kept racing ahead and on to other topics: I suspect I lose out on a lot of the sensory experience food provides every day by my actions. I observed myself using smell as my primary sense, checking to see if the oats and dates had finished toasting in the butter when they started to hint at burning. I microwaved(!) the banana; when I’ve made this recipe before, I’ve used a frozen banana. A fresh banana in the microwave smells to me like a wet gym sock; the flavor was semi-palatable but I will definitely go with the frozen variety in the future.

Eating the dish was an exercise in centering and re-centering. I sat down and took a bite, completely forgetting my own purpose. As I re-centered on my breath, used my senses to connect to what I was doing, and ate it very slowly, I found myself experiencing texture in a new way. Part of the appeal of this dessert is the chew of the oats in contrast with the silkiness of the dates and yogurt. I also enjoyed the different temperatures—the yogurt was cold, the bananas were steaming, and the oats/dates were closer to room temperature. It had never fully occurred to me that food is more than smell, taste and visual appeal (except for the few textures like sea urchin that I simply cannot bear). I struggle to eat vegetables on a regular basis, so perhaps concentrating on these sensory touch-points will help to widen my palate.

On the whole, my meal sat differently in me as I thought about its origins, travels and the impact each piece of it had on my being. I wondered how the sorrowful path of the banana, at least if its story was untold, would impact my body as compared to one that was sustainably grown and harvested. I was filled with a fuller understanding of myth and story; the beauty of sitting together and hearing one’s elders speak in sacred terms about how the various indigenous plants and animals came to populate our region and make their way to our bellies has been obliterated by modern agricultural practices. The mechanization and digitization of our lives stripped from us first our connection to the land and has now, with convenience foods, taken even our knowledge of how to prepare food for ourselves. In addition, there is privilege today in having the time, money and resources to examine from where our food comes and to prepare it and perhaps grow and harvest it by hand; many people struggle obtain nourishment in the first place. Movements like permaculture and fair trade may assist us to address these concerns as a society; on the small scale, as we adjust our lifestyles to whatever extent possible, we can partake in small, sacred moments of passing a plate around the hearth, recounting the story of each ingredient and mindfully savoring each spoonful.

To what extent do you attend to the origins of the foods you eat? How far or near are their points of origin to you? How fresh are they when they arrive at your home? To what extent are you attentive and mindful during the process of cooking? Eating? Lastly, if you try any part of the ritual, please share your experience!