Doris Dörrie's camera greets Edward Espe Brown when he arrives in Australia to give a class on cooking, Zen, and meditation. We see him back home in Northern California as well. Brown, for forty years a Zen cook, demonstrates cooking as well as commenting on topics including anger, quiet, gleaning and waste, battered pots, and how he found his vocation. A focus of his is to demonstrate how to bring one's self to cooking and to others simultaneously. He quotes often from two masters, with several examples of Zen wit. The camera takes the occasional trip to fast food restaurants to provide contrast to Brown's approach and results. Written by
Metaphors about food and its connection to life are common in our society; for example, "life is just a bowl of cherries", or "life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get". Yet most of us take food for granted, treating it as little more than a necessary means of survival, pausing only long enough to open a package or stop for fast food on the way home from work. The connection between our life and what we eat is the main theme of German director Dorris Dorrie's documentary How to Cook Your Life featuring Zen practitioner and acclaimed chef Edward Espe Brown. Brown has been a practicing Buddhist for over forty years and is the author of several books including "The Tassajara Bread Book", a main reference book for aspiring bread bakers.
Winner of the Audience Award at Sundance, Dorrie's film follows Brown to several Buddhist centers including Scheibbs in Austria, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and the Zen Center in San Francisco as he promotes his ideas about our putting food into a larger context in our life. "When you're cooking you're not just cooking", he says, "not just working on food, you are also working on yourself, on other people." Brown was ordained as a Zen priest in 1971 by Suzuki Roshi and has held cooking classes in Buddhist centers throughout the world, teaching mindful awareness of food in our life. Roshi, author of the popular "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", is shown in original archive footage, "When you wash the rice", he once told Brown, "wash the rice, when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots, when you stir the soup, stir the soup." In other words, when you are involved with a task, be involved one hundred percent, stay in present time and silence the little voice in the back of your head.
Dorrie divides the film into sections: free your hands, fiasco, cutting through the confusion, anger, affluence, no preferences-no aversions, incomparable, imperfection and blemishes. She also visits an organic farm and a cookware store and shows how a woman creates her own meals by scavenging fruit from trees and leftovers from grocery stores. Brown aches for a return to a simpler life with more personal involvement with food. His emphasis is on the joy of using our hands in cooking and has nothing good to say about the packaged and processed foods that permeate our society. He talks with nostalgia about his memories of when his father baked his own bread. "Why are we eating like this? What went wrong? We're eating a puffy kind of chemically, not very tasty, papery-cardboard bread. We don't do things anymore because supposedly machines can do it better."
Brown has a strong point of view and has the ability to laugh at himself with a little chuckle like the Dalai Lama, though at times his personality can be somewhat irritating and I would have enjoyed hearing from more of the participants at the Centers. Dorrie does not set him up as a saint, however, showing his occasional lapses into anger and frustration and his tears when describing a dented teakettle and comparing it to the worn vessel of our own bodies. The message, however, comes through clearly. Brown says, "When we give away our capacity to do things with our hands, with our bodies, to use our hands to knead the bread, to make things, to touch things, to smell things, how are we going to feel alive?" I remembered this the next day when I made pancakes from scratch for the first time in many years. Not bad, either.
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