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Growing Up in a Zen Kitchen Taught Me to Love Waste

Japanese Buddhism emphasizes asceticism, and if that virtue were to be judged through what we cooked, then leftover casserole could not be a more perfect meal. As for all the melted cheese—well, even Zen students need to be permitted certain...

The Zen Buddhist cooking tradition has yielded countless dishes that are both aesthetically ornate and elegantly simple: tofus in all colors of the rainbow, flavored with yuzu, black sesame, kelp, and everything in between; New Year's Day bowls of o-zōni, a hearty soup with ladles full of fish cakes; grilled mochi, konnyaku, and vegetables; and, of course, gently mounded white rice alongside pickles made from shiso, eggplant, daikon, and burdock. All of this is a sumptuous, salubrious feast for the mind and body.


We rarely prepared anything quite so precious at the temple in New Mexico where I was raised.

White rice, sure. Miso soup, of course. Tofu, store-bought. Undoubtedly, though, the pièce de résistance of our regular menu rotation was "leftover casserole," which, as its name implies, was just that. Take the scraps from everything you've eaten over the past several days—mushy oatmeal, different stir-fries from every day of the week, scrambled eggs, neon yellow curry—mix it together into a relatively uniform concoction, spread it into a baking tray with a thick—I can't emphasize this enough—thick layer of grated cheddar cheese on top, and pop it into the oven until warm in the middle and melted.

Is it sad that this dish is the most iconic from my home, that the proud and beautiful tradition of Kyoto's temples has degenerated into this sloppy, goopy mess, served with a side of ketchup?

Yes and no.

Japanese Buddhism emphasizes asceticism, and if that virtue were to be judged through what we cooked, then leftover casserole could not be a more perfect meal. As for all that cheese—even Zen students need to be permitted certain indulgences from time to time.

People may have certain lofty ideas for what a Zen kitchen is like, and of course there are those idyllic moments of tranquility. Beginning work at four or five in the morning while the stars are still shimmering brightly against the darkness of the mountain skies is not without its charm, however ephemeral it may be. Typically though, the work is the lowest of the low: the skill, the art, indeed the entire philosophy of the space is not wabisabi, but waste management. To succeed as a Tenzo, you have to learn to love and appreciate what everyone else throws away.


READ MORE: What Living on a Hare Krishna Farm Taught Me About Scams and Leftover Pasta

The most important day of the week for us was always Thursdays because that was Takuhatsu—begging day. Traditionally, begging was done, well, like begging: going from place to place with a big bamboo hat on your head and beseeching people for alms. But, because this is 20th-century America and not the fucking Meiji Restoration, "begging" is just like any other business transaction: Wake up before the crack of dawn to beat the Christian charities to the loading dock, sign some paperwork, fill up the back of the minivan with half-rotten fruits and vegetables, and drive it an hour-and-a-half outside of town with the AC busted, hoping the milk and yogurt doesn't spoil (more than it is already).

A typical business transaction.

Arriving back at the temple, we'd pull a few extra people from the staff to help with the donations. Like some French chef's nightmare, we'd then sift through boxes full of stale donuts, the soggy craniums of fresh melons, and herbs so far past their prime that they would turn into green slurry in my hands.

At around 7 AM, I'd have have a cup of coffee, dust the grime off of a doughnut or two, and go elbow-deep into a 20-pound box of brown bananas to see what there was to be salvaged for the week. This operation we affectionately referred to as "triage."

A large amount of the food would go directly to the compost pits for our gang of chickens to pick over. Once the majority of the rot was discarded, the main task was stock rotation; this was a smelly game of musical chairs without enough chairs—and lots of poking, prodding, and sniffing involved. I think it is rare for most people to know how much food our groceries waste on a daily basis, and even if they have the bleeding heart to be cognizant of it, they almost certainly will never understand the breadth of that waste until you see (and smell) it in tremendous stacks of cardboard boxes in your kitchen.

READ MORE: You Probably Have No Idea How Much Food You Waste Each Month

There is a callous, even cynical power in those little numbers printed on food packaging: "best by" dates. I know because I spent the first half of my life eating that which was discarded by others, or simply that which was arbitrarily deemed bad.

In Buddhism, the lotus denotes a particular significance: a flower rooted in muck that rises above the scum and mud to unfurl on the water's surface. There is no place where that symbolism is more true than in the kitchen, where we're tasked with wading through waste and rotten offal, to create a meal, even if we do have to douse it in cheese sometimes.