A dose of reality has moved two influential food gurus to reassess their preaching and write self-help memoirs on their lifelong meditative journeys. In striking contrast to their previous best-selling books — Geneen Roth's Women Food and God and Ed Espe Brown's Tassajara Bread Book — these slim, kindred volumes of accumulated wisdom contain no definitive answers, no foolproof recipes for improving your relationship with food and yourself.
There is no recipe, agree Roth and Brown. (In fact, No Recipe is the title of Brown's new book.) There is no sure path to better eating, cooking and living. In fact, you'd do better to stop following self-improvement advice and find your way to self-acceptance.
Or as Roth puts it in her new book, This Messy Magnificent Life: "Stop trying to get rid of, improve, resist, or otherwise fix yourself."
If you're blanking on Roth, picture Oprah, many aha moments ago. Remember the petite blonde with an encouraging nod who inspired Oprah, the veteran dieter and talk show host, to declare she'd never diet again back in 2010? That's Roth, now 65, whose pioneering work on mindful eating and spirituality has helped countless dieters do as the extreme yo-yo dieting author did herself: Make peace with food — or at least call a truce.
In case mindful eating and cooking have escaped your attention, they're part and parcel of a holistic approach to our relationship with food in light of the rest of our lives. Mindful cooking has its proponents, but the ancient Eastern practice of mindful eating has become increasingly popular among practitioners of Western medicine, especially eating disorder therapists. Understanding our messed-up relationship to food, the thinking goes, helps us understand other convoluted aspects of our lives.
Beyond therapeutic, mindful eating has become a cash cow for book publishers, weight-loss spas, wellness retreats and the meditation industry. In the past, these pioneering food gurus have prescribed step-by-step cooking instructions and specific eating guidelines as ways to not only improve our food-related habits, but our lives in general.
As for Ed Espe Brown, unless you're a vegetarian or a bread baker, his name is unlikely to ring a bell. But you've likely come across his cooking philosophy, if not his whole foods recipes. The 72-year-old Zen chef has influenced a long line of bakers, food writers and restaurateurs, from Mark Bittman, the former New York Times food columnist, and Mollie Katzen, author of the Moosewood cookbooks, to Steven Raichlen, grill master and TV host, and Deborah Madison, who founded Greens Restaurant, and, with Brown's help, wrote the eponymous cookbook on San Francisco's landmark vegetarian restaurant.
Given the uncanny similarities between Roth and Brown's twin tomes, the coincidental health problems that shaped them, not to mention the authors' manifest influence on my own career path — from baker to eating-disorder therapist — how could I not interview both? What follows are edited highlights from the matched set of email interviews:
Long before the masses discovered mindfulness, you were exploring food as the doorway to mind, body and spirit. What inspired you to marry mindfulness with food?
Roth: I tried every diet on Earth. I tried depriving myself, counting calories, exercising madly, fasting regularly, and, in the end, I felt I insane and fatter than ever. I realized that if I wanted to change my behavior, I had to unequivocally stop the harshness and start paying attention without judgment. In addition to being more mindful, kindness [to herself] became crucial, and that, in itself, was a radical leap, since I believed that only suffering and criticism inspired change.
Brown: I dropped out of college to go to the mountains and attain true realization. Three years later, I was first head cook at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Working in the kitchen, my Zen teacher said, was the same as meditating in the meditation hall. I was inspired to prove him right and [adopt] the Zen spirit: "When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots." Absorb yourself fully. Experience your experience closely.
You've already written volumes on mindfulness and food, so why a new volume?
Roth: My relationship with food now, amazingly enough, is peaceful. Not so with the mind that created it. After I broke my back in an accident, I was shocked to see that I didn't realize I had a back. Not really. I wasn't living inside my body. I treated my jade plant better than I treated my body. When I got the four-month virus, [a run-of-the-mill, but relentless bug,] I felt like I was going to climb out of my skin. It wasn't the situations themselves that were causing so much anxiety, crankiness or pain, it was the mind that interpreted them. My mind... with its endless judgments, complaints and preferences. Much like when I decided to stop dieting, I made a decision to deal directly with the source of the pain and drop the war with myself.
Brown: While I've written five cookbooks that implicitly reference spiritual practice, this is the first to explicitly focus on spiritual practice in the kitchen and the wisdom and power of going beyond recipes. It doesn't say to follow the instructions and everything will come out as it should. There is no recipe for living your life. Meanwhile, I found more stable, long-lasting energy adding meat and moderating the carbohydrates of my vegetarian diet. Ironically, I also found I felt bloated and slow after eating bread. My own recipes were no longer fulfilling.
If readers take to heart just one lesson, what would that be?
Roth: That no situation, no matter how painful or awful, is unworkable. Everyday challenges are givens. We have them, we're always going to have them. The big scary situations — rejections, abandonments, losses — are the openings to change you didn't realize were possible. Losing every dime of our 30 years of life savings [as Roth did during the Madoff investment scandal of 2008] utterly changed my life in such a radically good way that if I had to do it again, I'd choose exactly the same thing.
Brown: Invite your passion to cook. Instead of tying yourself down so that nothing volatile arises, use what is vibrant and volatile — feelings — to energize your presence in the kitchen. Cook's temperament is a passion for life — put it to work. If I were to cook only when I was feeling most loving, kind and benevolent, I would have starved long ago.
Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated therapist and author of The Self-Compassion Diet.