For the love of food

Remembering Alan Watts’ food essay, ‘Murder in the Kitchen’

I don’t think many people are reading him these days, but one of my favorite essays about food is by Alan Watts, a guy who garnered his fame by writing about Buddhism, mostly the Zen variety. In an essay he called “Murder in the Kitchen,” Watts wrote about how misguided Americans are when it comes to their relationship with food, and most other elements of the material world, for that matter. Watts wrote the essay in the early 1970s, and it was first published in Playboy magazine, of all places, but it remains relevant even all these decades later, and it raises some enduring questions about how best to live out our time on this earthly sphere.

As a man and as a philosopher, Watts was a sensualist. He celebrated the physical and material present, and his essay laments the fact that most Americans seldom visit their lives at all, seldom take the time to be present in the present. Our failures to value and treasure the immediacy and sensuality of life’s joys lead us to a host of evils that contribute to the ruination of the world around us.

To offset the harm we do to sustain ourselves in a world where our continued existence is purchased through the death of other living things, Watts offers a few words of advice about minimizing the pain—to our consciences, to our fellow creatures and to the planet.

“Every form of life killed for food,” Watts wrote, “must be husbanded and cherished on the principle of ‘I love you so much I could eat you,’ from which it should follow that ‘I eat you so much that I love you.’ ”

If such words were heeded, we would not be strip-mining the oceans of their fisheries, and we would not be engaged in the myriad unnecessary cruelties routinely practiced in the factory farming of millions of chickens and pigs we consume each day.

Beyond the macro issues of food production, Watts also quotes the ancient Chinese philosopher Lin Yu Tang, who wrote: “If a chicken has been killed and it is not cooked properly, that chicken has died in vain.”

Watts wrote his essay—which really is worth reading in its entirety—not long after the Beatles did a world-wide telecast by satellite, the first of its kind, singing “All You Need Is Love” to a global audience of more than a million listeners. And though it may seem simplistic, and even simple minded, love is the answer. For Watts, and lots of others, that love begins in the kitchen, with the food we prepare and share with one another. Grow it with love, harvest it with love, prepare it with love and share it with love. It just may be our only hope

There is nothing more satisfying than cooking for people we love. As a writer, I spend far too much time in my head, but cooking requires that I be present in the moment, forces me to pay attention to the here and now. The tactility of slicing onions, the aroma of butter in the pan, the sound of stock bubbling on the stove, the color of peppers on the cutting board, the taste of salt on the tongue, all the senses brought to full life in that little triangle of space between the sink, the stove, and the refrigerator.

And then, when the chopping, slicing, stirring and blending are done, there is the pleasure of watching my grown daughters enjoying what I have made for them, accepting the offering of love that comes not through the abstraction of words, but through the sensual and material reality on the plates.

In the words of Watts, “a good cook broods over the range like a doting mother, or like an alchemist distilling the elixir of immortality from rare herbs … For the cook is, after all, a priest offering sacrifice, and the stove is an altar.”

All of which makes cooking devotional, makes eating a sacrament and a celebration. What we celebrate is love. Without it, consumption is empty, and life becomes self mockery.

So, the next time you find yourself tempted to just fling something into the microwave, think of the pleasures of the moment you’re squandering, and the life you’re wasting—yours, and those of the plants and animals whose lives were terminated to provide you these moments that might have offered more than fuel if you’d only taken the time to savor the time you have.