Food Life Lessons: What Cheese and Bread Making can Teach us about Going Vegan or Starting Something New
After our previous episode and post all about the gratitude we can feel for the plate in front of us, I found myself thinking about food in and of itself. Since food and our relationship with it is at the core of what we help you through here at Brownble, sometimes I forget all about the big lessons making specific foods has taught me. Whether you’re here because you want to improve the way you relate to food, or you’re beginning a practice of mindful eating, making more vegan choices or learning how to trust your inner signals of hunger and fullness, or you’re simply here to find community, support or simply to learn how to cook vegan, so many of the lessons cooking has brought my way can help in many of these areas. It’s like I always say, the way we do one thing, is a reflection of the way we do most things, whether that’s how mindfully or mindlessly we eat, or making a layer cake.
Looking back to my past, I can now see that I probably got interested in cooking as a teen because it was such an escape from anxiety for me. In a way, I could step out of the anxious turmoil going on in my mind and I could walk into the kitchen, open up a recipe book and immerse myself in the process. Cooking was an escape, but now, looking back, it’s also a powerful way of practicing little life lessons whether consciously or not.
These past few weeks as I’ve been experimenting like crazy with fermentation and making vegan cheeses and breads at home, the lessons these goodies have brought my way have started to trickle into other areas of my life and I thought I’d share them today, perhaps in what will be an ongoing series in the podcast and blog from time to time, which I’ve called “food life lessons”. Little life lessons taught by food through food, while we dive into the world of cooking together.
Early adventures in bread making
When I was little my mom always used to say that all you had to do when you had the blues was grab a recipe for a loaf of bread and start kneading. I constantly grew up hearing her say this: “when you’re sad, bake a loaf of bread”. For her it had something to do with the meditative state you get into when you knead the dough over and over again while you suddenly escape an overactive mind. It also had to do with doing something quietly and on your own, while you let yourself truly dig deep into the feelings or the problem, get it released through the pressure you put on the dough and then letting it go.
So many of my favorite food movies show us a similar image. Amelie Poulin baking a pie and crying over the empty packets of yeast at the end of the film Amelie, or Jenna in the movie Waitress taking her anger, frustration or sadness and turning these feelings into pie. Julie in the film Julie and Julia getting relief from an unfulfilling life at work by escaping through bruschetta or pan fried mushrooms. For those of us who love to cook, making a recipe can be almost like a meditation, whether it’s to escape the inner turmoil and give worry a rest for a bit, or whether it’s to do a bit of “good for the soul sulking” for 30 minutes until our creation is done.
I can tell you so many stories about little lessons I’ve learned when making anything from a sauce for family barbecues, to strawberry jam, to experiences making the most elaborate Christmas cookies growing up, to the comfort brought on when making a soup or a stew. Still, it was the bread making that was always mentioned as the ultimate mood booster.
Bread, cheese, and making new changes
Here’s what bread and vegan cheesemaking have in common: there’s planning, then there’s waiting, then there’s mindfulness and repetition, then transformation, then a magical result that makes you say “I can’t believe I did that!”. Then, there are so many common threads between this process and going vegan or making any new change in our habits, our lifestyle, or our mindset.
The importance of planning
With both cheese and breads you have to make sure to do a little planning. There are cashews to soak in the case of cheese, and timing to consider, because contrary to popular belief, there is such a thing as too much rising time when it comes to bread. You need to carefully plan when you want to serve a cheese platter (perhaps a birthday, anniversary or holiday party), and the weeks needed to cure and age the cheese beforehand. You need to time the hours needed to develop yeast, knead and let the dough rest, proof, shape, and proof again, and you have to time that so that you’re not sleeping when it’s the perfect moment to pop your gorgeous loaf into the oven.
So many times I hear of people who are wanting to go vegan who go back on this way of eating because it felt hard in the beginning. They weren’t sure what to make for dinner, they weren’t sure how to get organized with their busy schedules, or what to buy. For others who are already vegan the struggle is in wanting to cook more at home and not finding the energy or time to do so.
Making breads and vegan cheeses have taught me such a huge thing, and it’s that for pros and beginners alike, there needs to be a little planning.
Planning will get us so far when it comes to cooking more at home, making more vegan choices or even improving our relationship with food. It can help us so much to schedule in that trip to the store when we need to stock up, finding some recipes in books, online or in our online program, and writing the ingredients down on our list so we make sure we have everything we need. Sometimes, when we know we’ll have a busy day we can prep some staples the night before and have them ready. When we know we’ll be travelling we can research some cool vegan restaurants, and pack some snacks for the journey. So many times we give up on a change we’re feeling really inspired to make because we expect it to automatically fall into place, and the truth is that that will happen with time, but planning a bit and getting organized (as well as getting you’re kitchen organized), will be your number one help. If not doing that was the culprit for taking steps back, noticing this can also help us simply tweak and learn, rather than give up altogether.
When we’ve planned, the actual day to day work is minimal
Have you ever seen a recipe for a stew that calls for a 3 hour cooking time and thought “yeah right! this is something I’ll never do, thank you very much”? If you had read the recipe you would have probably realized that it actually called for adding everything to a pot, and then waiting. If there are two staples where this is as true as can be it’s bread and cheese. The process is long, lots of waiting times, and different waiting times, but in fact, the actual work is tiny, the number of ingredients is tiny. Same goes for so many of our eating habits and food choices. We tend to be overachievers when we first go vegan or when we’re trying to cook more at home regardless of how we eat. You might have heard me say that doing a little batch cooking really helps and you’ve immediately pictured a cooking session that took up the entire weekend, in which you made three different types of beans from scratch, blanched some veggies, roasted others, made a curry, a soup, a dressing and a pasta sauce, made your own energy bars and a pie made from scratch and then needed a vacation from your Barefoot Contessa weekend.
Forget overachieving and remember bread and cheese. A little planning goes a long way, and just a little bit of work can make the rest of the job easy. Sometimes a batch cooking day for me is simply making some brown rice or quinoa, making sure I have some canned beans and tofu on hand, fresh veggies and herbs stocked, and blanching some green beans. This can be transformed into so many things throughout the week, and it takes half the effort into planning your meals, because a few of the staples are already done or require minimal seasoning and warming up.
The waiting game
Bread and cheese puts your patience to the test. You watch like a child as the bubbles in the dough or cream begin to form thanks to the lovely yeast or bacteria you’ve added, you want to squish it, touch it, move it, finish the bread or cheese already so you can eat it, but there’s just no rushing the process. You have to set it aside and get on with your day until that timer rings or the dough has doubled or even the weeks have passed and the cheese has that gorgeous rind your patience helped form. Same goes for making any change to the way we eat, to our relationship with food, to our commitment to eat mindfully, to our practice of intuitive eating, to our exercise routine, to our meditation practice, and definitely when it comes to going or staying vegan.
We will feel like jiggling the bowl. We will feel like looking at it a thousand times to see if it’s ready, we will feel like we want to get to perfect right away and it just doesn’t work like that. Changing habits takes time, lots of mistakes, and it takes a big dose of being able to focus on other things too, and letting things be, giving our minds and bodies a break while we rest, and get back to it when it’s time to eat, cook or exercise again. Don’t push yourself so far to the extremes of your limits trying to be perfect from the start. Don’t try peaking into the oven too early. Be kind to yourself and keep repeating “this is going to take some time and practice” until it feels like second nature.
The importance of having some breathing room
One of the first things you need to learn when you’re fermenting stuff, whether that’s dough for breads, or cashew cream for making cheeses, it’s that they need breathing room. They need space in the bowl to grow (in the case of bread), and breathing room so that oxygen allows the bacteria and cultures to do their magic. We also need a little breathing room when it comes to changing habits. We need to have other spaces and activities to fill our time so that food doesn’t become our only focus. We need to be able to set it aside, and set all worries associated with eating aside (i.e. weight loss, body image, etc), and notice that our lives are filled with so many other things. Even when we’re thoroughly enjoying the process of finding a new approach to food and eating, even though we’ve got stacks of books we want to read on the topic, and videos we want to watch, we need some breathing room and some time to develop and grow other areas in our lives, we mostly in this day and age also need time to rest. That might mean putting away the book on vegan nutrition for a bit and reading a great spy thriller. It might mean setting down the spatula and going out to eat with friends. Breathing room will help ideas and creativity flourish, they will bring insights into what we’re doing to the surface, just like the yeast helps the bread grow if we leave enough space at the top of the bowl.
The wonder of repetition
When you’re making bread, there’s a lot of kneading involved, there are also moments of letting the dough rest while gluten relaxes so you can begin the process of kneading again. When your beautiful vegan cheese wheel is ready, it has to lie on a rack in the fridge while you turn it over once a day for days and even weeks for it to age. This is that glorious moment, that wonderful repetitive zoning out or zoning in my mother was always talking about. Doing the same action repeatedly like Mr. Miyagui’s wax on wax off, will do wonders for the soul. It’s why mediation and mindfulness focuses on breathing. In. Out. In. Out. We can use this moment to focus on the way we’re feeling and letting it all come out and then being able to leave it on the kneading board, or we can use this moment to focus only on the task at hand, at the feeling of the rolling dough beneath your fingers, the changes in temperature and bounce, and have a 15 minute break from our busy minds and problems.
So many life lessons taught by cheese and bread, and they’re still teaching me things daily.
Incorporating a new way of doing things, a new way of eating, a new exercise routine, a new relationship to our body and the way we talk about it, a new way of approaching the moment of eating, all of this, takes time, practice, breathing room, repetition and there is almost never an end to the road, there’s just another beautiful loaf that comes out of the oven, with that moment of realizing you can take credit for that beauty or any triumphs you’ve had on this journey with food, and then noticing that tomorrow will be a new day to practice it all over again.