Take Time to Smell the Onions

The movie will be there in November, well before Thanksgiving, the publicist kept telling me. But the arrival of "How to Cook Your Life," the documentary by German filmmaker Doris Dorrie ("Men," "Enlightenment Guaranteed"), kept getting delayed, and admittedly I was annoyed. Ever since I got wind of this movie featuring Zen chef and cooking teacher Edward Espe Brown, I had ants in my pants, which isn't very Zen-like. But now I can cool my jets, as the movie opens this Friday, Dec. 7, at Landmark's E Street Cinema, and the timing couldn't be better.

While we work ourselves into a holiday lather over the next few weeks, Dorrie's movie is a welcome respite from the seasonal madness, an opportunity to silence the jingle bells and perhaps smell the onions.

The 97-minute movie, which premiered earlier this year at the Berlin film festival, is about nothing and everything. The camera follows Brown over a two-week period in 2006, while he leads Zen and cooking workshops in Austria and in California. On the surface, the movie is all about Brown, an ordained Zen priest and the author of several cookbooks, including "The Tassajara Bread Book," (and a founding owner of Greens, the legendary vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco), a premise that may bore those on a cinematic diet of shoot 'em-up meat and potatoes. But if you're the kind of movie goer who chews slowly and mindfully, it's an enchanting, thought-provoking film, asking us to slow down, and yes, smell those onions.

Earlier this week, I caught up with Brown via phone; below are snippets from our conversation. Q&A below the jump.

How did you and [director] Doris Dorrie meet?
In 2005, she was teaching a film seminar with Zen students at Tassajara (Zen Mountain Center in Carmel, Calif.). She and her daughter (then 16), would come by to see my cooking classes, and they were having a good time. And she asked me, 'Ed, Would you like to make a movie?'

And I said, 'Oh sure.'

They just filmed me. I didn't have to act, there was no makeup, no retakes. And Doris just let me be me.

In the movie, you teach students how to make bread, and I'm wondering if you've heard of the latest trend of no-knead bread that has become very popular. Any thoughts?

There's something to be said for using your hands. Hands love to be hands. If your hands don't have something to do, the flow of your energy doesn't necessarily flow as well. You're living more in your mental body, in your head. In a lot of spiritual practices you're extending your consciousness out of your head out into the periphery of your body, into your limbs, and that makes us feel good, it's makes us feel awake and alive.

At the same time, I can appreciate the time constraints of our busy lives, so it's good to have options. I would encourage people to be open to the choices out there, then you can see which one you want to do and appreciate the virtues of both.

Edward Brown. (Roadside Attractions)

This time of year is one of the most stressful. It's fraught with anxiety and much of it is focused around food. What advice do you have for home cooks?

I'm encouraging people to trust in their own capacity to do stuff. That means to do as much as possible, but to move away from the performance piece of it and become less concerned with how others perceive it. This doesn't mean disregarding other people's taste and expectations, but it also means not abandoning your own to take care of others and serve others.

This is not simple because we're also doing this in other areas of our lives. This is one more place to think about this idea.

Also, in a certain Zen sense, when you're cooking, you're receiving all the ingredients -the food that you're going to work with, plus the ingredients that make up your own energy, your time, your capacity - with all of those, allow yourself to dream up what you can do with what you have. This is an important shift in the way we go about our lives. A lot of the time, we don't trust our capacity.

In the movie, you say "Treat the food as it were your eyesight, as it were that precious." Tell me more.

"There's something very simple about food. When I started to cook, it all seemed quite mysterious. To make a recipe is so much work. You've got to stop and measure things. But to cook, you use your hands, you use your eyes, you use your nose. This is not complicated. You can learn to trust your eyes and hands and nose by sensing what's going on. Mostly what makes food really good is that you take care of each step.

In the film, you describe visiting your Aunt Alice in Washington as a kid and how entranced you were by her homemade bread, that you went home and asked your mother if she could teach you how to make bread, and she said "yeast makes me nervous." Were there other pivotal culinary moments in your life?

Actually, Aunt Alice lived in Falls Church (Va.)! My brother who's four years older than I am, told me that what he remembers is the Smithfield Ham, not the bread (laughs).

When I was in the 7th or 8th grade, we had show and tell. I brought in my clarinet. And one of my classmates, she brought in a bowl of lettuce, and a jar of dried basil, and some sour cream. So she tossed it up, passed it around for everyone to taste. I never liked salad in my life, and I thought this was so good. I went home and told my mom, who would make it. And that's how I started eating salad.

If I liked something, she'd make it. She would slice up cabbage, sauté it a little bit, put in some dry white wine, let it steam. It was probably something like Almaden Chablis, nothing fancy. It was a very simple dish, but it was very good, and didn't taste like cabbage-y. There were certain things like that caught my attention.

When I was living on my own in San Francisco, I was practicing Zen (since 1965), I started cooking for my self. I was very entranced by cooking. I'd look at the inside of a bell pepper for example. There was such a sense of discovery and I started writing about it. I had this set of wooden bowls and a little set of metal bowls with bright metallic finishes, from the thrift store, and I'd love to look at the colors and the presentation.

When you cook, you start to feel so empowered. You can do something for yourself, you can cook for other people. So I started having little dinner parties. In those days, you could pick up a half a liter of sake for three bucks, and I'd heat it up. It wasn't great food, but we had a good time together. That's how I got started cooking.

When I started cooking at Tassajara, I said, 'Wow, this is fun. I can make a living doing something this fun!' It is so challenging in our culture to find something you can give all of yourself to, and cooking is one of them.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 5, 2007; 9:48 AM ET Food Movie News , Q&A
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Hi, Kim: This question is a bit off topic for today but in the 'baking' category. I'm really puzzled by a problem I had with baking a cake from a recipe in Marcie Goldman's "A Passion for Baking" cookbook. I decided to bake a cake for an office bake sale/fundraiser. I'm a pretty good baker and have never had such a disaster as I had with the Finnegan's Irish Cream chocolate cake. I prepared it and followed instructions TO THE LETTER. I sat the prepared tube pan on a baking sheet, just as instructed in the recipe, baked it for 65 minutes. When I opened the oven after 65 minutes, the entire inside batter was still liquid. I baked it another 20-25 minutes, the inside still not done. Then it collapsed like a flat tire. It was a total ruin. I thought maybe the baking sheet kept the heat from going up the tube pan and left the insides unbaked. What do you think? Has anybody else had this problem? The chunks of cake tasted good from what I could dig out of the pan but it was a mess and I couldn't take it to the bake sale. Instead I substituted my favorite chocolate chip cookies -- I've always had success with those. Any feedback on the cookbook and/or my cake failure would be appreciated.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | December 5, 2007 11:32 AM

Is it possible you left out either baking soda, baking powder, or eggs? These are all "leavening" ingredients, and if your cake fell flat it sounds like that may have been your problem. I left one of these items out of cookies once which caused them not to fully bake and to be flat in home ec in high school.

Posted by: Southern Gal | December 5, 2007 2:36 PM

Southern Gal: No, I didn't leave anything out. Everything was put in according to the recipe and prepared as instructed. The batter was still liquid after the completed baking time of 65 minutes. It sank inward after baking another 25 minutes and batter was still not completely done. I think sitting the tube pan on a baking sheet was the problem.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | December 5, 2007 2:37 PM

I have put cake pans on a baking sheet before and never had a problem with the cake not baking properly. Did any of the ingredient amounts seem off? There are rare instances when cookbooks have typos. Isn't A Passion for Baking fairly new? Maybe you have a version with an uncorrected typo. If the author has a website, see if you can find any info there.

Sorry to hear about this in any case. I am always sad when a new recipe doesn't work.

Posted by: Allison | December 5, 2007 5:44 PM

Allison and Southern Gal: Thanks for the feedback. I'll contact the website and explain what happened. I'm a very good baker and have never had a disaster like this. The only other time was when I was about 14 and made a cake after a home economics lesson. After about 15 minutes of baking the batter rose up out of the pans and ran over the side like lava out of a volcano. My mother had put self-rising flour in the canister, unbeknownst to me, and I used the baking soda called for in the recipe.
Happy holidays to you.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | December 6, 2007 10:38 AM

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