Thursday, 7 July 2011

practice makes...

...more practice. Let me explain. I don't often blog about anything other than food or veganism here, but sometimes other things are relevant. In this case, yoga is relevant to cooking. Before you roll your eyes (or hell, after you roll your eyes) keep reading. It might help.

There are things we do that we don't stop doing until we die. You can get better at it, it can be fun or not fun, but the point is that you do it. For me, cooking is one of those things. We don't *have* to cook - there are certainly enough ready-made foods around. And I don't have to cook at a practice - one can certainly approach it just as a means to getting food into one's tummy. But if I had to pick a way to describe my cooking, I would say that I have a cooking practice.

A little background: I am an improvisational cook. Though I have cookbooks, and read cookbooks, I rarely follow recipes (even when baking - GASP). In the kitchen, very few things flummox me. I cook easily, and while not every single meal is a masterpiece, I'm just as happy when I have to improvise because I'm cleaning out the fridge, have run out of an ingredient that I could have sworn I had lots of, or because of new dietary preferences or restrictions, as I am when everything goes according to my evil culinary plans. I love cooking. To me, it's like dancing when nobody's looking. It's like jazz. It's like... running really fast when you're bursting with energy. It's like fingerpainting with a 4 year old. You get the point. All of these things are experiences, not endpoints. And all of them are things that come more easily the more you do them. So the grownup way of saying all that is that for me, cooking is a practice. Like all practices, the point is that it's part of my life. It's something I do every day (or almost). It doesn't interrupt me being me, it's just part of me.

Wanna hear my woo-woo hippie secret? I've started going to yoga at 6.30. Every single morning. I started doing it in self defense - I can't always make it to evening classes if things pick up at work, and I like to be able to socialize in the evenings, or work, or cook. So when yoga is relegated to evenings, it often gets skipped, and is a source of major scheduling woes. And after not-too-many weeks of doing the same series of asana every morning, I rapidly realized one very important thing: the asana are not the practice. Getting up at 5 is the practice. Getting on my bike is the practice. Showing up is the practice. Breathing is the practice. The asana focus me, but the practice is much more than that. Oh, and the exercise is a side-effect. The muscles in my arms are a side effect. Being able to do the splits fairly effortlessly is a side effect. Being (nearly) able to walk about on my hands is a side effect. These side effects are all awesome, but I can't motivate myself to get out of bed before sunrise with the possibility that I may one day have a nicer ass. I just have to get out of bed because I'm getting out of bed. I can't climb on my bike in the rain for killer abs. I can climb on my bike, every morning, to climb on my bike. And I sure as hell can't make it through the entire primary series before breakfast for any goal. I can, however, breathe in and out and focus on whatever asana I'm in (or attempting) right then and there, and eventually the series gets done. You see, there isn't a goal. If I ever manage to do every single asana in the primary series, I won't "finish" anything. I'll just fall on my ass less. And keep getting up at 5. And some days my yoga practice really sucks: sometimes I'm tired, or unbendy or unbalanced or unfocused and one time, I just kind of burst into tears. But the thing about a practice is that it includes the sucky days too. Yoga on days when I fall over or can't keep my mind from wandering off in all directions is just as much yoga as days when every asana falls into place and I experience each and every breath conciously. The only way to fail at practicing is not to show up.

Now here's how it relates to cooking: the final dish is a side effect. Being able to cook a dinner party for 8 without a recipe book or even knowing what the ingredients will be the day before (and not finding that stressful) is a side effect. Making a cake that you imagine but don't have a recipe for, and having it work out the first time is a side effect. Making my own chocolate bars is a side effect. Cooking is a practice. Each step is it's own thing. If you worry too much about the end product, then it becomes a chore. Not that the end product isn't awesome. It is. I love preparing food for those I love. But I'm not torturing myself to make them something. The practice is this: shopping, chopping, mixing, tasting. The practice is putting combinations of spices together over and over until you know how they will affect each other before starting, it is chopping often enough that chopping takes on an effortless rhythm that isn't unlike breathing. It's paying attention to smells and textures when they happen so that eventually you can smell when the rice is done without opening the pot or pull sesame seeds off the heat when they're toasty but before they burn. It's making bread over and over and eventually (trust me) you just know when the dough is right. It's really listening to what your loved ones tell you they like and don't like and inventing recipes just for them. Cooking is cooking and it doesn't end, so you might as well let it be an end in itself. The food, my friend, is a side effect. Oh, and the only way to truly fail at cooking is to fail to show up. Making plain boiled rice is not lesser cooking than is a 4 layer birthday cake, or Christmas dinner. Sometimes I burn the rice. And that's practice too.