If You Learn to Cook, You Can Change Your Life
Step beyond the made-up complexity and artificial urgency of everything
In Ancient Greece, the word for “cook” and “priest” was the same — “mageiros” — sharing an etymological root with “magic.” The word appears again in the revealing 1814 anonymous Old English book, The School for Good Living, defining “magirist” as a “cook and an artist in good living.”
Back in Croatia, 50 years ago, I grew up on asphalt with a family heaven-bent on cooking. We huddled over lamb rotating on a makeshift spitfire at the riverbank, over a clay pot of braising saksija in our oven, over two barrels on our balcony, a smaller wooden one with fermenting peppers stuffed with cheese, and a large plastic one with 19 heads of white cabbage and one head of red cabbage (we elevated creating pink sauerkraut brine to the domain of art). Then there was winemaking in our garage, and meat smoking and vegetable gardening just out of the city. And not one, or two, but three socialist refrigerator/freezer combos. All of this in our apartment project building. We broke all the rules and food was everything.
Every year we traveled to swim in the Mediterranean, ski in the Alps, and visit our family in Tuscany and Istanbul. Our sightseeing was all a ruse, however, a way to practice and perfect what connected us with each other, our family, friends, neighbors, strangers, earth, and cosmos. We talked, made ourselves busy, and invested most of what we had into cooking. The kitchen was the temple.
In seventh grade, I guest-hosted a cooking show on national TV. By the time I was 16, I had punched in 10,000 hours of cooking practice. I missed soccer games, school dances, and punk rock concerts because my mom and dad made me stay home. I was to clean, cut, simmer, roast, pickle, organize, sense, feel, and discuss food.
I remember one Saturday night standing on the fourth-floor balcony of our big cement building, waving to my friends, who were all dressed up and ready to hit the city: “My dad needs me to butcher tonight! Sorry!” (Context: That afternoon one of my dad’s workers, a mason, had stopped by in his van, unannounced, and dropped off a slab of half a cow for us, the meat still warm after the slaughter.) My friends would sadly shake their heads and walk away. But I wasn’t sad. I was excited!
For years, I took this in-house cooking school for granted. My interests moved on. When I left my parents’ place at the age of 20, I was keenly aware of how badly the world, and I, need change. I was determined to transform myself and the world for the better. First, I became a structural engineer like my dad — determined to build bridges. Then, after moving to the United States, I became a psychologist; then an ordained Evangelical minister; then an executive coach; then a contemplative retreat facilitator. For decades, I obsessed over the riddle of human transformation.
‘Food is everything we are.’— Anthony Bourdain
Then one day, 10 years ago, when I was cooking in my apartment kitchen overlooking the busy streets of Harlem in New York City, I realized that transformation occurs whenever we step over the edge of what we know and become attentive to parts of ourselves, others, and the world that is unknown to us.
Instead of being a provenance of priests, coaches, meditation teachers, and motivational speakers, human transformation is — I realized over two pots boiling on my kitchen range — common and accessible, a natural tide and flow of regular human life. We don’t manage change. We inhabit change.
I know, to you my kitchen epiphany might sound like, duh? A run-of-the-mill mystical experience. It was. But it was also very practical.
If you are like me, you probably feel overwhelmed with information about how to improve your life. Have you done your morning routine today? Have you made progress on that online course? Have you read those articles you saved on Medium? Have you listened to that podcast? You haven’t? Well, you should. You must. Why? Because you must be your best self.
That’s what happens when we turn life into a project. Instead of helping us on the way, this excess of awesome advice comes to be in the way.
I came to realize that — to my disbelief — transformation is much simpler than we make it to be. Make soup. Vacuum the house. Repair the bike. Say sorry. Take a nap. Pay your bills. Thank people. Go for a walk. Sing. Cry. Sit quietly in your kitchen late at night with lights off. Don’t solve problems.
Inhabit change. Just keep on moving into the unknown. The unknown within you and around you. There, transformation is not only possible but inevitable.
At crucial thresholds of our lives, we have to want to change, and sometimes change is an all-consuming and difficult step forward. Yet, our own transformation is a process that rarely, if ever, responds to our efforts to control it. It responds, however, to us asking questions that matter to us and that we don’t have answers to. It happens when we have one foot in the known and another in the unknown, in that sweet awkwardness of real change in real time.
We have the capacity — it is actually our species’ most difficult blessing — to deliberately step into the unknown, survive it, befriend it, and eventually, learn to delight in it. That is the practice of transformation.
‘While I was learning to cook, I learned to work (and ultimately to love).’— Mark Bittman
I discovered something ancient. Every day of my life I have entered the original space of human transformation, where our bodies, minds, and stories find our home: the kitchen. For a while, anthropologists like Richard Wrangham, the author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, and his predecessors have been telling us this. It is around cooking that we have become the human race, human families, and human beings.
In other words, it takes a kitchen to be human. Those of you who cook in order to feel alive know what these anthropologists are talking about. This is where we, cooks, feel our bodily presence in the world. This is where, for us cooks, all human life intersects — art, science, history, economy, politics, relationships. This is where we share stories that give us meaning. This is where we come in touch with our beautiful human need to belong. This is where we practice joy, confidence, and freedom. This is how we serve the world.
And we, cooks, are all in this together, as brotherhood, or sisterhood, or knighthood, or neighborhood, ours is a hood of kitchens.
After my kitchen revelation, I had sleepless nights. I would wake up too happy to go back to sleep. What could I make for the next dinner? Who’s coming? What’s their story? What’s their beautiful need? How can I perform the alchemy of turning earthly matter into cosmic love? I can make them realize not “I am full,” nor “That was delicious,” but rather, “Life is wonderful!” I can wake people up!
How could I then sleep?
At first, I didn’t know what to do with this. Over the years, the culinary arts have been seized from peoples’ kitchens and assigned to labs of food corporations, TV studios, disjointed YouTube hits of dopamine, and the celebrity chef industry. On the other hand, there has been growing attention to in-life practices of housework, gardening, sewing, and cooking. These ancient transformational technologies have been hiding in plain sight, unclaimed by our ritual-hungry lives.
Is it possible, you might ask, to face the overwhelming complexity of life with something simple?
I began to experiment with helping people stop trying too hard. I asked them to stop chasing change (or escaping it) and pay attention to — crazy, I know — the colors in the produce aisle, the stories around their table, and soap water in their sinks.
I am not alone. We, cosmic cooks, are everywhere. We host the world. We are the priests of Big Bang and the scientists of the Great Spirit, saying to every human being what every human being needs to hear: “Life welcomes you.”
We are cross-generational. We operate with and beyond our five senses. We have a secret language of human connection. We are the kitchenhood.
We don’t merely practice cooking. We have taken cooking as practice. We are on Cook’s-Path-to-Total-Enlightenment-One-Way-Road-to-Full-Salvation kind of a trip.
We don’t offer explanations. We facilitate experiences. Sharing with children. Receiving from elders. Encounters with strangers. Connection with neighborhoods. Relationship with the planet. Self-understanding, self-compassion, and self-mastery. New experiences then provide an anchor for new explanations. In the safety of our homes, we can afford to release our grip on our defended identities. That is how we change. It is all much, much easier than we thought.
Is it really that simple?
I know: I did not believe it either. Thirty years of helping people transform came down to this?! I realized that growing up I was using the kitchen as my church, my yoga studio, my therapy room, my science lab, and my artist’s workshop. Since then, I had spent years traveling distances, buying information, in order to add spirituality, personal growth, and excitement to my life. I had a period when I worked hard on adding simplicity to my life. (Just think about that for a moment.)
What if we invest some of our money, time, and energy into paying attention to, participating, and collaborating with the change that is already underway in our lives?
We have been besieged by advice about oh so many things we need to change. And fast. Instead, we are realizing, we want the freedom to live lives we can each call our own. Let’s set out to restore people’s kitchens into what they have actually always been: potent, consistent, and eminently available places of human transformation.
‘When we cook, we are expressing ourselves completely, for we always cook within the context of our lives.’— Dana Velden
I wish years ago someone had taken me aside and made it clear that being fully alive is not a goal but a practice. Testifying to me that I can learn to live well, love well, and lead others well, as I go. That I can wayfind through the unknown, rather than cling to the GPS systems (or recipes) that keep my head down and my heart checked out.
If you have seen and experienced what I am describing here, you, my friend, are hooked. You can’t go back and unsee and un-experience the power of the kitchenhood. But you can move forward and learn to meditate, celebrate, and create life as you take care of life.
Here I am, at 55, inviting you, the cook, to embrace cooking as practice. Experiment with it, like you would with a dish. What would happen if you were to release the grip of made-up complexity and artificial urgency?
What would be possible if you lean into the radical simplicity of it all? If you double down on whatever faith in life that you have? If you allow for a possibility that everything you need is already in and around you? If you claim places in your life where you can find yourself by simply going about the business of being human? In that unknown, what could you discover?