The Soulful Kitchen, Part 2: Sacred Space

When the intensity of summer sunlight begins to wane in the late afternoon, I raise the blinds that lessen the greenhouse effect from the many windows on the upper, main floor of this house. It’s then that you will find me in the kitchen, contemplating what might come together in my hands for supper. If you know me, or if you’ve read my previous blogs, you fully grasp that the kitchen is my sanctuary. In a sense, it’s my atelier—an artist’s studio or workshop. Whatever I call it, the kitchen is the domestic place where I always come home to myself and where I’m generally the most content.

At the risk of sounding overly spiritual or serious, the kitchen is sacred space for me. Sacred because it’s a primary venue where I nourish the bodysoul through conscious, Ashurstdeliberate action. Even when circumstances in my life feel challenging or my work feels less than rewarding, in the kitchen I can create something that nourishes on a deep, primal level and brings pleasure to all my senses. Sacred because it is the heart of the home, the primary space from which I get to share and nourish others in my life. And sacred because something timeless and essential—the preparation and sharing of nature’s bounty—unfolds there.

We all respond immediately to our environment, even if many of us aren’t paying close attention. For me, a kitchen needs to be more than simply functional—it has to be a place that I enjoy being. As with any room in my house, where sanctuary for the soul is ever my aim, I’m mindful of the energetics of the actual space itself; this includes what I choose to put there (or remove), the lighting, cleanliness, and the general ‘feel’ of it. I need my kitchen to be tidy and uncluttered so that I have adequate space to work, and I want it to feel warm and not sterile (referring here to mood rather than hygiene).

Admittedly, I’ve rarely had a kitchen that I adore or that inspires me. It has been years since my partner and I actually owned a house, and our nomadic lifestyle thus far mandates that we are generally renters. Like most tenants (or even homeowners), I make do with whatever kitchen comes with the house, some better than others. In recent years, two kitchens are especially memorable: one for its sheer absurdity and the other because it was, well, a dream.

When we moved to the UK, the kitchen in our tall, narrow townhouse in Wimbledon was the size of a closet. Actually, I think the bathroom was decidedly larger. It had cheaply modern, IKEA-style laminate cupboards and green countertops, with a postage stamp-sized sink and the world’s smallest dishwasher (that I mistook for a trash compactor until I opened it). The saving grace of this minuscule space was that it had a gas “hob” (stove), and a door next to the sink that opened to the rear terrace and overgrown garden. Ironically, I had to permanently block the door with a wooden kitchen trolley so that I had some storage and work space, but through its large window I did have abundant natural light—essential under the perpetual gloom of England’s grey, cloudy skies. Normally we would not have selected a house with such a totally unacceptable kitchen (I’ve seen better galleys on sailboats), but it was the only rental in our chosen area (and price range) that would accept a dog. What a dismal joke. The first time I cooked dinner for four, I quite nearly lost my mind.

Counterpose to the Wimbledon cooking closet was our relocation to the rolling countryside of Kent, southeast of London. The gracious, large brick farmhouse had a kitchen that had once been a small, stone barn shed—originally separate from the house but later incorporated in various expansions and renovations over the centuries. Not only was it spacious, it oozed Old World charm—a gabled roof with exposed wood ceiling beams; an old-fashioned Rayburn cooker tucked into the original inglenook fireplace; a leaded-glass picture window above the double wide, vintage porcelain country sink; handcrafted wooden cabinets with wide, worn wooden counters; terracotta tile floor; a walk-in larder; an antique, bifurcated, wooden barn door that swung open to the stone terrace (where the resident Mallard ducks waddled noisily on their way to the stream bordering the driveway). Though we dwelled in that lovely house only four months before being relocated to Sussex, I lived in that kitchen—even when I wasn’t cooking, sitting with a cup of tea and a book—with the barn door open to the spring sky (or even the rain) and loved every gracious moment of it.

The majority of kitchens I’ve inhabited have struck me as uninspired, average, and soulless; designed with little thought to the actual working space or the ‘feel’ of the room—laid out, I hypothesize, by left-brain dominant, male architects who do not cook. C’est la vie. As with anything in life, we work with what we are given and attempt to make the best of it.

The way that we put our stamp or style on a kitchen then, matters. As I wrote a couple months ago in a post titled ‘The Soulful Kitchen’ (click to read it), the quality and feel of items and tools are deeply important to me. I’ve long ago replaced anything cheap or plastic in my kitchen (my entire house, for that matter) with items that feel well-made, solid and durable; items that bring pleasure from their visual and kinesthetic appeal, their heft and texture in the hand. (Similarly, food should be beautiful and it deserves a good plate, linens, and the time to savor it unhurriedly at table.) I choose to leave a few chosen items out on the counter for a sense of what they add to the space—a roughly-hewn Thai mortar and pestle made from green marble; a uniquely inlaid, wooden rolling pin; a rustic decanter for olive oil from a noted huilerie in France; a handcrafted ceramic bowl piled with local fruit—as an ongoing, shifting negotiation between decor and clutter, usefulness and style.

It might only be a candle or two set in the window but in a nod to sacred space, somewhere in my kitchen I construct a simple altar. Currently, a small, darkly curvaceous figurine of a goddess sits next to an emerald green glass holder for a votive; they rest on a large wooden cutting block, next to my various mortars and pestles. She reminds me of the goodness of the Earth from which all our blessings spring. I light the candle when I come into the kitchen to begin my dinner preparations.

An old fashioned soul, I could dwell by candlelight; when my partner is away on travels, or when we’ve been living apart for work circumstances, I often do. (Florescent light is banned in my kitchen.) The kitchen candle represents a small ritual act, like lighting a white taper in the cathedral of Notre Dame or a stick of sandalwood incense in a Buddhist temple. It centers and focuses me for a moment, offering a chance to draw a deep breath and inhabit my body differently. Indeed, my little altar visually reminds me of the sacredness of creating food that nourishes body and soul.

As with lighting the candle, I wash my hands as a ritual gesture (yes, for cleanliness too), and then gather all my ingredients to begin my mise en place—a French term that means ‘stowage’ but in culinary arts refers to prepping ingredients before starting the cooking process. With everything spread out before me, sometimes I offer a little prayer of thanks before I begin; other times, I acknowledge and bless each thing as I’m washing or working with it. I firmly believe that the energy and intention we put into our food makes a difference, and I make a point not to cook when I’m angry or upset. Granted, my basis for this conviction is purely personal experience—anecdotal rather than scientific—but to cook with love and gratitude imparts a harmonic vibration into what we are eating… with positive, healing results.

As with a garden or a contemplative practice, cooking offers a chance to be fully present in what I’m doing… and to revel in the sensory delight of the moment. Mind you, I’m no quiet monk in the kitchen, silently mindful of each slice of the knife. Sacred need not mean somber or solemn but simply an appreciation of the wonder(s) and bounty of life. An expansive soul and happy heart embodies ‘sacred’ with equal fluency as someone kneeling in prayer, whether in a chapel or redwood forest.

Usually I like to put on a bit of mellow music—often in a foreign language, or some classic jazz vocals—and pour myself a glass of good wine. I have previously written that when a recipe stipulates “add wine”, this should certainly apply to the cook, as well. With my apéritif, I lay out a few nibbles on a plate for myself (no one else is usually home yet), such as some briny mixed olives and a few slices of a fine cheese. Alas, choices of artisan, raw milk cheeses are limited in Hawaii but thanks to Whole Foods, I can generally find a proper Tomme de Savoie, an aged Manchego, Beaufort, and a few others, such as Ossau-Iraty, a fine ewe’s milk cheese from the Pyrénées that I adore. (I could write an entire post on cheese but I’ll spare you. For now.)

Though it’s usually a one-man show in my kitchen, I do enjoy cooking with others. A couple of my friends are very good cooks, and there is little that delights me more than to conspire on a meal with them. What a gift of heart and soul to co-create delicious food, improvising as we go along, swept up in the delight of each other’s company and the fabulous, organic ingredients we’ve gathered. A sacred and soulful kitchen, indeed.

One of the secrets in life is to give it away and share. Even if my day has been challenging, unproductive, or disappointing in some way, the kitchen is where I get another chance to create something nourishing… and then share with my beloved, perhaps a friend or two.

Soul Artists feel deeply through their open hearts. They are people who are highly attuned to their senses and environment. Because they appreciate beauty, often they possess a skill for creating it themselves. They realize that a key aspect of what makes life sacred is appreciating the beauty that surrounds them, finding it even in the most unlikely places. Because they are paying attention, at any moment they might simply tip over into a state of open-jaw wonder and wild appreciation. They create simply to give it away, for to do so is an act of sacred reciprocity—a generosity that feeds the Soul of the World.

When we live from the soul, we don’t simply appreciate beauty, we embody it.

Gentle reader, here’s hoping that you might begin to view your kitchen as something more than just a work space. View it with fresh eyes, as an outsider might. Is it a space that pleases you, one that invites creativity and appreciation, or is it a repository for junk? When you walk into your kitchen, what happens in your body and breath—a subtle expansion or a constriction? If you could rearrange and create more of a sanctuary, would actions would you take? Maybe it is time to clear out some of the clutter. Or create an altar. Perhaps you could take the time to lay out your ingredients on the counter and give a bit of thought to where each of them came from—the life it had before it came to you and the invisible web of hands that brought it to you—and offering thanks for what you have.

At the very least, may you open your senses, inhale a deep breath, and savor the pleasure and grace of the table.

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