BOOK REVIEW — Finding Yourself in the Kitchen

November 30, 2015

Reviewed by Katherine Keller

Finding Yourself in the Kitchen Dana Velden Rodale Books, 24.95

Finding Yourself in the Kitchen
Dana Velden
Rodale Books, 24.95

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

Dana Velden’s new collection of essays has found its way into our culture amidst a cascade of cookbooks, blogs, podcasts, and television shows that accompany the Big Food Bang, the American food revolution that began in the 1960s.

Meditation began to make its way into our culture at the same time though it grew more slowly and with less glamor. The number of Americans exploring and practicing meditation has burgeoned, especially in the past 20 years.

As such, it seems a fitting time for the emergence of a book that teaches readers how to meld mediation with their experience in the kitchen.

Finding Yourself in the Kitchen — Kitchen Meditations and Inspired Recipes from a Mindful Cook is a collection short essays and 15 of the author’s personal recipes.

Velden, who grew up in Wauwatosa, is an Oakland-based food writer and Zen priest. She has written for the food blog The Kitchn since 2008, where her column, “Weekend Meditations,” has gained an enthusiastic following.

In the first essay, “On Why I Wrote This Book,” Velden spells out the theme that informs her essays. “There is a hunger today for a more considered life, one where our everyday circumstances are not a series of inconveniences to get through (or around) as quickly as possible but rather a source of our awakening and pleasure. …I wrote this book to take up this less examined side of cooking, to encourage and inspire a more deeply experienced life, and to help us discover that no matter what the circumstances, we all have the capacity to deeply nourish ourselves and those around us.”

The text is filled with Velden’s suggestions about how to practice mindfulness and receptivity in the kitchen, so as to open one’s self, as she explains, to intimacy.

For Velden, intimacy is openness to experience, an opportunity to “allow something (or everything!) to make contact with us, to touch and therefore change us, often in ways we cannot predict or control.”

There are benefits, she writes, to dropping one’s protectiveness and being available to something outside oneself and to new experiences and ways of perceiving and reacting.

Take the experience of a cup of tea. Velden starts her morning with a contemplative ritual. She spends about 10 minutes quietly sipping her tea, being present with that tea and those moments, watching whatever happens to wander into her mind, she says, rather than worrying about what needs to be done that day or ruminating on past hurts. Notice the light, she advises, the songbirds, the scents in the room.

“What burdens can be put down when we redirect our energies not toward the goal but into the process itself, into each moment along the way? What treasures are waiting there?” she writes.

Velden gently urges her readers to deepen their experience in the kitchen by illustrating the opportunities it offers for transformation. A deliberate, considered approach to kitchen tasks, she tells us, can develop deeper self-awareness and opportunities for personal growth as we navigate the banality, toil, frustration, skill, failure, triumph, discovery, and pleasure of the kitchen.

For me, one almost completely unfamiliar with the theory or practice of meditation, Finding Oneself in the Kitchen, is a series of lessons that provide an opportunity create devotional-like experiences as one works in the kitchen.

Along with Velden’s advice about using time in the kitchen for meditation and all that it confers are generous dollops of practical advice. Some of the fundamentals for happiness in the kitchen are, she says, a full pantry, pots of herbs, filling a basin with warm sudsy water as a preliminary to starting the steps called for in a recipe and washing utensils as one uses them, keeping knives sharp, a bowl full of lemons.

There was a question that niggled me as I read through Velden’s sagacious essays, and that was how would one practice these meditations with a toddler pulling at one’s apron? How would one find time to be alone in the kitchen, free of distractions of family members, their chirping and buzzing devices, of the natural needs and demands children have in what is often the dearth of time they have with a parent?

Velden’s easy, sophisticated prose comes with insight, great warmth, wisdom, chattiness, and good humor. As she reveals herself through the essays, one begins to feel this woman would be a most interesting dinner companion and probably a lot of fun to drink a little too much wine with.

Her recipes are appealing, straightforward, and uncomplicated. Following is one that is just right for this time when we move into the winter and relish the warmth of classic baking spices, especially when delivered in an easy-to-make cake.

Finding Yourself in the Kitchen
Dana Velden
Rodale Books, 24.95

Full Disclosure: Dana Velden and I were once colleagues at a children’s book publishing company in Milwaukee.

My Mother’s Spice Cake

My mother serves this with a classic cream cheese frosting but it is just as delicious, or maybe even more so, served plain with a sprinkle of powdered sugar. People who say they don’t like cake tend to like this one.

Makes two 8-inch round layers

Preheat the oven to 350°F

Butter and flour two 8” × 2” round cake pans

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream

IN a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and salt so that everything is incorporated.

IN a large bowl or using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the butter, brown sugar, and sugar until fluffy, scraping the bowl, as needed. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, followed by the vanilla and the sour cream.

ADD in the flour mixture, beating until just incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl, as needed.

POUR the batter into the prepared pans, dividing evenly. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cakes begin to pull away from the sides and the middle springs back when lightly touched. Cool for 10 minutes, then invert each layer onto a rack and let cool completely.

WRAP one cake in double layers of plastic wrap or waxed paper and freeze for up to 3 months. Be sure to label it with the date and contents. Wrap the other layer in waxed paper and store in an airtight tin for up to a week. It will improve with age.

Reprinted from Finding Yourself in the Kitchen by Dana Velden (Rodale Books).
Available wherever books are sold.

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