Kitchen Magic- Rites, Rituals, and Esoterica

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

It’s Sunday morning- my Monday at the cafe, and the ritual begins as soon I walk in.

An impressionist-style illustration of a tall, hooded figure by a gravestone.

Photo from Unexplainedaustralia.com

Our laminates guys, Roy and Chris, promptly clear the bench flour from my table when they see me walk in. My bag drops and I pull out whatever personal affects I’ll need at my station that day- phone charger, headphones possibly, hat if I’m not already wearing it, and a slide to keep my hair back.
After a quick look at the board for the day’s requests from Morning Bake and glossing over the letter from Victoria containing my to-do list, it’s straight to the back corner to drop my bag in the locker and swap my shoes. Punching in rings the bell- let the day begins in earnest.
A red bucket and sanitizer are acquired and I leave it to fill in the sink while I grab my apron and sidetowels- always two. One hits my table dry, the other is tossed in the perfectly filled bucket as I return and cut the water- just a little finesse.
Bucket goes by my feet, apron goes on- I’m ready to head up front and check the case.
—————–

Not exactly what you think of when you hear the word “ritual”, is it? No weird hooded figures, mystic amulets, or chanting in dead unholy languages. The clean bench, the bucket, the two towels- it’s all so mundane.
It makes a world of difference.

Food, and the preparation thereof, are integral parts of any culture- and the thing about culture is that any activity within it, performed with intention and will, is imbued with meaning. It is made magical.

Magic
Sandra’s seen a leprechaun,
Eddie touched a troll,
Laurie danced with witches once,
Charlie found some goblins gold.
Donald heard a mermaid sing,
Susy spied an elf,
But all the magic I have known
I’ve had to make myself.”

Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

In an article in Psychology Today, researchers explore the role of ritual in athletic performance. That is to say- when a basketball player always bounces the ball a certain number of times before a freethrow, or a tennis player sets his water bottles down in a specific way before a match, does that really make them perform better?
I invite you to read the full article and study, but the bottom line seems to be that these seemingly-innocuous actions have a powerful affect on their performers. By easing their mind with a reliable familiarity, they are partially inured to the neural deficits of performance anxiety- that is, even if they fear screwing up, it doesn’t get in the way nearly so much.

My little morning ritual above is similarly innocuous and mundane- certainly not as obvious or quirky as other rituals performed by athletes- but it helps me start my day with my “head in the game.”

A man standing alone on top of a dune. The text is the

This one is pretty ideal if your job involves pain-inducers or riding sand worms.

Since I have been in the working world, I’ve picked up more than a few eccentricities, superstitions, and historic hand-me-downs from an industry that is, necessarily, fueled on passion, madness, and being your best at all times.

1. The Tools For The Job
In a previous post, I introduced you to my Bubba’s kitchen witch, its history, and the fact that I insist on putting ONLY wooden utensils in her. Given that statement, it’s not a stretch to understand that the number of wooden spoons in my kitchen in beyond comical. While I cannot pinpoint exactly where I acquired my affinity for wooden spoons, I can say that there has been a LOT of study and ink dedicated to the humblest of utensils- their merits, their history, how the flavor your food (spiritually AND physically) with their presence.
While they are certainly not ideal for everything (a non-reactive metal spoon is necessary for checking the consistency of Creme Anglaise, for instance,) just holding on in my hand feels close, earthy, and companionable- enough that I would tattoo one on my arm at any rate.

A close-up of the tattoo on the authors right inner arm. The tattoo depicts a birch spoon, hickory rolling pin, and mahogany fountain pen bound with a banner reading

The same can be said of rolling pins and fountain pens, really.

2. Knives
Even if you don’t believe in the woogy-woogy, touchy-feely business of this post, knives are a real big one. Good knives are EXPENSIVE. They last generations. Their owners rely on them, baby them, keep them in perfect sharpness, and God help you if you grab someone’s knife without their permission.
By the by, if you ARE given permission to use a chef’s personal knives, you are hand washing that thing immediately afterward. Not letting it sit dirty, and DEFINITELY not putting it through the dishwasher. As Chef Masaharu Morimoto points out:
3. Symbols and Superstitions
Food is part of culture. Cultures get REALLY weird ideas regarding it, as this article from The Kitchn enumerates. (Link) Some it turns out have basis in fact, such as the Chinese belief in “wok hei” (link), or “the breath of the wok”- the idea that a wok that has been passed down through a family for generations and constantly seasoned rather than cleaned imbues it’s own indescribable flavor to food, similar to maintaining a cast-iron skillet in the American South.
For the most part, however, symbolism in the kitchen is an extremely personal affair. Just like the athlete’s rituals I mentioned before, bakers and cooks may have their own rituals and superstitions they adhere to to bring out THEIR “A” game.
Here are a few of mine-

Animated GIF from Dreamworks' From “The Prince of Egypt”

Exodus 4:17 – 20
Unsurprisingly, I take things that I have tattooed on me pretty seriously. Every wooden tool I have on my tool box has the passage quotation written on it. The quote is as follows:

“The Lord said unto Moses, ‘Take the staff in thy hand, that you shall do My wonders.’ And Moses descended from the mountain and spoke to his father-in-law Jethro. “Please let me take my family and return to Egypt, for it has been many years since I heard from my people there, and I do not know if they are dead or alive.” Jethro said, “Go in peace.” And so Moses packed his family on a camel and returned to Egypt, and in his hand he carried the staff of God.”

Without getting into too much detail, the quote to me is an allegory for talent and finding what you were meant to do. Every time I look at it, it reminds me of where I was in life when I got the tattoo, and all the scariness and sacrifices I’ve undergone and will undergo to do what I love.


Ravens and Beavers
Long before I was a baker, I was a Boy Scout. Scouting has been- and continues to be- a huge part of my personal development, and there are a number of symbols I attach special meaning to because of it.
The Raven was my Scout Patrol animal, and in the lore of various Native American peoples, the raven is not just a clever trickster character, but one of creativity and intuition as well. The Beaver, meanwhile, was my Wood Badge patrol, held in lore as not just a teacher of diligence and industry, but of dreaming and the ties of family. Having a likeness of one or both of them on me when I work quietly inspires me,, reminds me of their lessons, and all the things that Scouting has taught me to take through life.

A pewter pendant depicting the sephirot in the Etz Chaim pattern.

The Sephirot
No, not the Final Fantasy villain- the original Sephirot.
Though I have not always been outspoken about my Jewish faith and heritage, I have always been proud of it. The Sephiroth (Hebrew for “emanations) come from Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, and this layout of them is called the Etz Chaim (or “tree of life.”) In Kabbalah, the Sephiroth depict how Divine will is enacted upon the world by way of human behavior and experience. In brief, it depicts the act of creation beginning as Divine Will, and finally being born as inspiration and action through the work of humans. I regularly wear this pendant when I work- not just as a symbol of creation, but as a connection to my heritage.

How about you? Any of you out there have certain symbols or rituals that, against all reason, just seem to help you work?

Stay Classy,