Thanksgiving in an American pie shop can best be described as the World Cup and the Super Bowl rolled up together- then stretched out over 21 days. Christmas, remarkably, tends to be less busy, but only slightly. I had to let my writing work slide for a couple weeks there because all my energy was being spent in the shop- physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The experience is always a trying one- I’m not complaining about that. My team and I handled it well, pulling off over 2000 pies in about a week. What it can mean, however, is exhaustion leading to strained nerves and losing sight of why the work we do is important. Not just to the world at large, but to ourselves personally.
You can’t blame a guy for not seeing the glory in the 500th pumpkin pie he’s made in a week, after all.
It’s almost providential then that, just before Thanksgiving, I rediscovered an important insight: “I chose this. I chose baking. I chose love. This is my calling.” Not many of us can say we work at our calling… but how many can also say their day job is their spiritual practice?
The Hyperbaric Dough Chamber
Things change when you make your calling your meal ticket. What gives you life and quiet joy also becomes responsible for keeping you alive, and the solace it gave your soul gets a little bit harder to find.
Somewhere around my 4th thirteen hour day, I could barely find it at all. I worked hard and well, but it was frustrating and miserable rather than soothing.
I was in the pastry room again, grousing and grumbling, covered head to toe in flour as I rolled a block of dough into crusts. The pastry room can be described as “non-descript.” My assistant says that time stands still when you are alone in there. Blank walls, bright lighting, and nothing but the work. Imagine the Hyperbaric Time Chamber from DBZ and replace martial arts training with making/manipulating pie dough, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the experience.
One of my anxiety/depression behaviors is rumination– when I dwell on misgivings and “rehearse” arguments that have not or will never happen. Exhaustion makes it more likely, simply because I have less energy to “push back” on the sense of grievance. I can fight it off for a while with music, podcasts and audiobooks. When I get fed up with those though, there’s nothing left but the four walls, the work, and my tired brain.
That’s when my thoughts enter an exhausting litany- “This is fucking bullshit. I’ve been saying we’re understaffed. This sucks. I shouldn’t have to do this. No one listens to me. No one cares. Someone else would be able to manage this better- I’m just a fuck-up. Maybe I don’t wanna work here anymore. Maybe I don’t wanna be a baker anymore.”
It was shortly after this that one of my bakers pointed out that the pastry room is a great place to focus, and that when I’m in there alone people don’t want to disturb me. I jokingly tell them “Oh yes, don’t disturb me when I’m in my Dough-Jo, practicing the Way of the Floured Hand.”
Here’s the thing- we were right.
The Way of the Floured Hand
Sitting in my therapist’s office during the holiday crunch often felt more like an inquisition than healing. Doc would regularly remind me that I was working too much, grill me on whether I had pushed back against it, and reminding me that I had power and choices that I was not using.
He was right in a way. I could accept that I was working way more, and that I wasn’t happy about it. Rumination, however, was leading to me marinating in that grievance and pain. I was stewing in it, letting it seep into my bones until I’d fall apart. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t simply up and quit- walk off the job and never look back, no matter how much I was coming undone. Sitting in his office one day, Doc asked me “Why?”
The best answer I could give to that was, “My team and the work. They need this job right now. They need it all to run smoothly this week so they can get paid. They look to me for guidance and leadership. They trust me- I can’t walk out on that.”
“On top of that is the work itself. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter who I work for. As a baker, I’m a craftsman, and I have a responsibility to my craft. I need to respect the food and the effort my team and I are putting in. I really can’t just put my hands behind my back. I may not be happy right now, but I know that I love the work- just not like this.”
Doc nodded for a moment and said, “Maybe that’s what you need to remember then. You could quit and leave your team or leave the industry all together for a better-paying field, but you are choosing not to. You are choosing love– love of your team and for your craft over money and comfort.”
“There is definitely a balance to be struck. You shouldn’t be working so much, and you should be earning more when you do- but you don’t need to make yourself suffer more while finding it. You have always chosen Love. Maybe that’s your ‘Way of the Floured Hand.”
Spiritual Pastry Practice
“I choose love. I will always choose love.”
For the rest of the holiday crunch, that became my mantra- especially in the dough room. When I was feeling run down or noticing rumination start to creep in, I took a breath and repeated it to myself. “I chose this. I chose love. I will always choose love.”
While I certainly couldn’t slow down my pace, I tried my best to slow down my thinking and pay attention– the differences between one block of dough and the next, or the texture of the fresh dough under my fingers, smooth and cold like satin. I let it be enough to get the work done well, and not continuously wind myself up.
Eventually, Thanksgiving came. The rush was over for the time being, and my boss gave everyone a couple extra days off to recuperate. I spent a good chunk of mine sleeping, decompressing, and detoxing from the stress and caffeine I was taking. I still had a couple pies to make for my friends and myself, but baking for my loved ones has always been a different matter. I told Emily once when she asked me to make pie during a depressive episode and I did it, “I’ll disappoint myself every day of the week and twice on Sunday, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before I disappoint you.”
It was during that rest time that I really got to sit and think about this “Way of the Floured Hand” I was following. What did it mean to “choose love?” What does it look like to embrace and find fulfillment in one’s craft without letting it supplant one’s material needs, turning into one more starving artist?
The answer was recognizing that baking is a spiritual practice for me, and for what that looks like I needed look no farther than Tenzo Kyokun and Jeong Kwan.
Tenzo Kyokun (“Instructions to the Cook”) was written by Zen Master Dogen in the 12th Century. It’s a fairly short read, but the essay goes into detail about how the tenzo– the head cook of a Buddhist monastery- should go about their duties and the qualities they should have. Far from being drudgery for a student or servant, the cook was meant to be an advanced monk who would make cooking for the monastery part of their spiritual development. The care, mindfulness, and attitude brought to their work was meant to be an expression and means of perfecting their growth.
Everything from receiving ingredients, cooking, cleaning and cleaning to planning the menu was meant to be approached with the goal of “how can I best honor myself, the ingredients, and those I serve?”
For a modern view of this, I happened to catch the episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix about Jeong Kwan.
Jeong Kwan is a South Korean Buddhist nun who has been living at a hermitage since she was 17. At the age of 64, she cooks for her monastery and the occasional guest, lectures on vegetarian cooking in Seoul, and teaches people to make “temple food”- vegetarian fare that encourages spirituality and serenity. She tends her own gardens at the monastery, pickles and ferments her own ingredients, and guides the kitchen. While her work would put any restaurant on the map, she says “I am not a chef. I am a nun.”
For Jeong Kwan, cooking is absolutely a spiritual practice. It’s a praxis for slowing down and paying attention, and being present. It’s appreciating everything that comes before you. Fermentation is how you use Time as an ingredient. Soy sauce is a connection to ones family and ancestors. The food itself is a connection to the Earth and the heavens that let it grow, and growing the food itself is practice in patience and compassion.
I may not be remotely close to being a Buddhist monk, but I can certainly identify with her philosophy. After all, being a baker is all about precision and patience.
That settles the fact that baking can be a spiritual practice, but how about ministry? Can I share this with others?
Of course I can. That’s the best part.
Peace of Mind in a Piece of Pie
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a concept of energy called drala. It literally translates to “above the enemy” or “beyond aggression.” In this context, the “enemy” is the disruptive push and pull of our habitual thoughts and the “aggression” is the idea that we must act to influence this energy.
Places, people, and things can be invested with drala. These are things that simply invoke a basic, elemental ease and goodness. They stabilize and soothe with their presence just by being. A place might be an empty beach, a mountain top, or forest glade. Things might be a bowl of soup or a warm blanket- and people with drala just radiate a soothing, calming energy that makes one relax. They exude patience, kindness, and compassion, and it influences whatever they make.
To my mind, that is my goal as a baker. When someone comes in to the shop from a miserable day- maybe they only have a few minutes to themselves and need lunch- I want my work to be a bright spot. I want each slice of pie I make to be the One Thing That Went Right Today that makes the next one worth seeing. That is the core of hospitality– providing a space for others to rest and refresh themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually.
In that way, baking is not just spiritual practice for me- it’s ministry. It’s how I hope to share that quiet, serenity, and drala with others- starting with approaching the craft itself as holy, and ending with sharing out serenity in the form of pie and cookies.
So long as I can keep that in mind, I can handle a few rough weeks and long shifts, and keep balance when my anxiety and depression creep up.
2 thoughts on “My Quiet And Crusty Ministry”
Good post,Matt! I used to ruminate more, not so much, now. I can identify.
div>You are like your father
Beautifully written, articulated and can feel your pain. So relatable, as a chef with my wife & our lil cafe we too lose sight of the why? But thank God we can re- commit and get back into it. Thank you!!