Zen Kitchen

Review by Kristina Sepetys

Finding Yourself in the Kitchen: Kitchen Meditations
and Inspired Recipes from a Mindful Cook

by Dana Velden
(Rodale, 2015)

There are 146,680 cookbooks listed for sale on Amazon. If you broaden your search to books about “food,” you get 295,406. And these numbers probably don’t include the scores of historical books and pamphlets on the subject. Food and cooking are surely important, but sometimes I do wonder what more can be said on these topics or how recipes might possibly combine ingredients in ways that they haven’t been already.

Which is perhaps in part what makes Dana Velden’s Finding Yourself in the Kitchen seem so special. Categorized as “Cooking/Inspiration,” this is a book with no styled photographs or curated resource lists and just a few very simple recipes, which are included mostly to complement and illustrate the author’s essays. Oakland resident Velden is a Zen priest who lived and studied for 15 years at the San Francisco Zen Center, where she was head cook. She’s also been a columnist for the well-known food blog The Kitchn since 2008, and many of her essays there were the inspiration for this collection.

In keeping with her background, Velden has created a quiet, meditative examination of “the internal aspects of being in the kitchen: how to awaken curiosity, how to work with boredom, what cooking can teach us about mistakes, failure, beauty, and intimacy.” It’s a delightful book that highlights personal, contemplative moments like “the way a cup of tea warms our hands,” “the way sunlight came in and lit up the pile of dishes drying by the window,” “the rough skin of a storage potato.” Velden encourages readers to “find out what happens when you open your eyes and engage with whatever is in front of you, right here, right now.” Chapters are just a page or two, easy to read at a coffee break for a bit of calming and centering. Topics include loving your kitchen, patience, posture, learning to live from a bowl of bread, gratitude, and how to be angry in the kitchen.

Velden’s writing reminds me of the well-loved British cookbook and food writer Nigel Slater, who can in a few sentences describe a trip to the farmers’ market or to his garden for a bit of ripe produce and make the quotidian experience seem transcendent. So I wasn’t surprised to discover one of the last lines in the book where she thanks Slater “with a deep bow of gratitude and respect,” for inspiration. The line follows a recipe for “A Small Bowl of Yogurt.” She admits that while there are certainly many easier and more efficient options for yogurt, “The point is to find some quiet time, to enjoy the process, and to create a simple ritual that encourages presence and contemplation.” Indeed.