How To Cook Your Life
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How To Cook Your Life

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Life used to be something that you would have to figure out mostly on your own. The fundamental moral teachings would come from your parents and religion and the rest you would have to put together for yourself. Now, there seems to be a ton of self help books for people who require a little extra guidance. I have to admit that I never would have thought that such new age instructions would make for an entertaining movie. After watching ‘How to Cook Your Life’ I readily admit I was mistaken. First of all the premise is inspired. Take a Zen Buddhist priest and combine his life view with a best selling cook book author and you have not only a fun film but one that is fascinating to watch. While so many documentaries are dry and pertain to extremely esoteric subjects this one targets something we have in common; getting though life. This film is more about feeding your life than just your body. Despite all the enlightenment that abounds in the movie it is delightfully down to earth. Even if you are generally turned off by people who espouse new age philosophies you will enjoy this film. As an aside it should be noted that there is nothing ‘new’ about either Buddhism or cooking. Both predate the new age trend by a good number of centuries. This film was of particular interest to me since one of my best friends loves to cook and lives with his Buddhist girlfriend. So the concept is a long way from being as far fetched as many may initially think.

This documentary was created by German film maker Doris Dörrie. Her job was made a little easier by finding a noted cook book author who is also a practicing Buddhist priest. This comes in the persona of Edward Espe Brown. This is not new to him as explained in the film. He was ordained by his mentor Shunryu Suzuki, a well know and respected Buddhist. Brown has also authored several popular cook books and teaches cooking and meditation classes in the San Francisco area. He also helped established the vegetarian oriented Greens Restaurant also located in San Francisco. For Brown every detail of food preparation from selecting the ingredients to preparing them is a reflection of a person’s life. In a society where fewer meals are prepared and consumed at home it is great to see someone who finds such pleasure in one of the most basis activities in life, feeding. Here is the States it appears that everyone is constantly on the go. More and more meals are from fast food joints and even the food we make at home is preprocessed. It seems the major food groups for most Americans are ‘take out’, frozen, delivered and fast food. Brown takes us back to a time long gone for most where there was spirituality to eating. Brown returns the audience to an appreciation for our food instead of just shoveling in something to fill the stomach. Brown quotes his Zen mentor, Suzuki with a sentiment typical of his view on cooking; ‘When you are cooking, you are not just cooking. You are not just working on food. You are also working on yourself. You are working on other people.’ Doris Dörrie has been a well respected director and writer for decades. She has worked mostly on German comedies and comedy-drama combinations. This was an ideal background for this documentary. She is as adept at combining the elements that makes the film informative and humorous. The comedy here is as natural as the foods that Brown uses. It is funny because it touches us on an innate, human level.

The film even opens with a natural progression. First we see a variety of fruits and veggies followed by mushrooms and leafy plants. Next there are the spices moving on to forks, spoons and knives. Last we see a modest Buddhist shrine. Brown is teaching a class. It is hard to tell if it is a cooking class or a meditation workshop. People are chanting while chopping apples. As far as Brown is concerned there is no true difference between the kitchen activities and the chanting; they are all aspects of life. The food preparation continues as does the chanting. It is almost surreal to listen to the somehow soothing chanting as so many hands are busy chopping, kneading, pouring and stirring. A kitchen is usually a madhouse of frantic activity but here the motions are calm and purposeful. All the people here are in the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California. This may not be the Culinary Institute of America, the other CIA, but it is a place of learning. Rachael Rae may teach how to make a meal in thirty minutes; Brown teaches how to make that meal a reflection of your life.

A good part of the film is out of the kitchen in the real world. Brown genuinely appears to enjoy talking to people. One homeless woman becomes part of the film. For her finding food is a matter of survival. She lives off of the trash that others cast aside. A sound man uses a microphone boom to grab a tree branch so she can reach some fruit. Brown speaks a lot about a meal being a community event. People should join together in the preparation and enjoyment of a meal. He can’t relate to the typical Americans that ‘grab a bit’ on the way somewhere else. The title is indicative of his view of life. It is not how to cook for your life, that would imply the two are separate. It is how to cook you life. You life is what is prepared and enjoyed. Okay, sometimes this can get a little bit on the nerves of the unenlightened such as I. When Brown speaks about a cup and its inability to hold its contents my mind did drift, I admit it. Perhaps it is time for us to consider the Zen perspective of the items that surround us each day rather than taking them for granted.

It may have been nice to show more time in the kitchen. A few helpful, practical cooking tips would have livened things up some. It would have also gone to help make the point here more relevant to the typical non-Buddhist in the audience. The focus is lost with the outside searches. There are some people that appear to be ‘freegan’, the new term for people who live as much apart from commercialism as possible. That means a lot of dumpster diving for meals. What is disheartening is the amount of usable food goes to waste behind every restaurant while much of the world is starving. This is a valid point made by Brown that we don’t appreciate the bounty of what we have. This is not only a Buddhist view. The Native Americans held a spiritual significance to the animals that provided their food and shelter.

This film is a nice chance of pace especially if you have been inundated with big budget action flicks or low budget slasher movies. There is a valuable lesson to be taken away here. Some times you should slow down and enjoy a good meal and a good life. Once again Lion’s Gate has found an Indy gem and brought it out to DVD for a wider audience to enjoy.

Posted 03/20/08

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