Seek, But Do Not Follow

Matsuo Basho, a Japanese Haiku poet, once wrote,

When journeying upon the path of wisdom, do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought. Seek the meaning behind their footsteps, and not upon the steps themselves. For in seeking the footsteps you shall be glancing only upon the next footprint. And you’re sure to stumble upon an unforeseen obstacle. But in seeking the meaning behind their footsteps you’re sure to see ahead; comparable to looking up while walking. Thus allowing you to easily maneuver around the hurdles on the path you walk. …And if you walk like this long enough, you’ll one day, to your surprise, find yourself among the wise.

I have come to appreciate this teaching, especially as it applies to my cooking. It provided me with a new way to read cookbooks. At one point in my life, I used to read cookbooks as a way of preparing the recipes. I would always start by reading over the list of ingredients, then begin my mise en place and get everything ready. I would then follow the recipe step by step. I was as Basho would say always glancing upon the next footprint or step in the recipe. In doing so, I definitely have had more then my share of unforeseen stumbles and obstacles. 

Then I began reading cookbooks in a different manner. I began reading them not so much for the recipes themselves, but seeking what was behind the recipes. What was the wisdom that was coming together in this mixture of ingredients? As my wisdom has increased so has my ability to maneuver these hurdles with ease, like a track star (which those who know me at all, know is not the case). For example, the other night I was preparing to make lemon bars for those who might stop by for our bimonthly love café that we host. I had prepared the crust and had this in the oven when I learned that the majority of those coming this week did not like lemon. So here I was with virtually no time to start something new, so I thought about what other kind of juice I could substitute for lemon. So instead of lemon juice and lemon rind, I used pineapple juice and crushed pineapple. Having learned that pineapple is a fruit with high water content, I used less juice then I would have had I used lemon juice. Hurdle cleared. Pineapple bars baked and they were amazingly delicious.

Now when I read a cookbook, I am looking at them like a collection of paintings or poems or pictures. They are works of creative art to be appreciated, but not always replicated. If I can learn how to appreciate the wisdom of these chefs, their creative point of view, their sense of who they are. Alex Guarnaschelli often talks about how she learned a lot about someone from their cooking. By eating people’s food, watching them cook, reading their cookbooks, you not only have the opportunity to learn new recipes, but to learn about food, to learn about ingredients, to learn abut techniques and to unlock your own wisdom and knowledge.

Reading a cookbook can be like reading a mystery novel. The chef is constantly revealing clues to you about their life. At the end, you have insights into the mystery of their life and new insights into your own as you create your own approach to cooking seeking the same way of expressing self, expressing wisdom, and expressing appreciation for the bounties of this earth.

I am on my own journey of seeking that which the wise before me have sought and who knows perhaps one of these days I too will be considered amongst the wise.