Feeding Orchids to the Slugs: Tales from a Zen Kitchen
by Florencia Clifford
Vala Publishing Co-operative, 2012
Review by Becca J.R. Lachman
As a junior in college, I studied for a year in West Yorkshire, England. Before I left, more than one American warned me about the sad state of British food. I proved them wrong by gaining twenty pounds.
It turned out I adored high teas and pub food, but also the takeout curries so new to my taste buds. Every experience during that year--including eating-- was an exercise in accepting and celebrating difference. From moment to moment, I had the opportunity to see the world anew.
Years later, I would come to know this practice as mindfulness, and its popularity today is no accident. Many of us are beginning to take deliberate vacations from phones and computers, and even the act of reading a physical book without any other distractions or multi-tasking can feel like a tiny self-revolution. Feeding Orchids to the Slugs: Tales from a Zen Kitchen by Florencia Clifford reminds us that even the simplest of acts can inspire healing and spiritual training.
Clifford grew up in Córdoba, Argentina but ends up in York, England after marriage. Her prose is a vibrant tour guide. Mouth-watering in itself, it reveals her dedication to cooking with community in mind:
The following night I made an aubergine dish with a parsley and tahini sauce, olive oil dripping off the serving plates: rich Moorish flavours. I like to alternate the simple with the opulent in the kitchen; in this way, people learn to taste the way other cultures taste, celebrating both abundance and frugality through shared meals. I made rich chocolate brownies with sea salt and rose petals; the petals sank into the batter as the brownies cooked, transferring their scent into the mixture.
As she goes on to describe her Zen teachers and the diverse meals she prepares for a Buddhist retreat center in Wales, Clifford also maps out her daily bouts of “missing home from home.” Readers who grew up in another country or region, or who simply pine for destinations or people, can relate to Clifford when she describes how “living with constant yearning left me feeling split; two personas inhabiting different worlds, swapping longings.”
Like a meal eaten mindfully, I chose to read this book over a longer period, one section at a time, mostly because I felt its presentation and overall themes kept inviting me to do so. Striking drawings by Michaela Meadow open every chapter, and as dishes and descriptions of their preparation help inspire narratives, the recipes themselves usually make an appearance at a chapter’s end.
The book’s title refers to a tradition Clifford starts when she takes a daily portion of food and flowers to the garden statue of Tara as an offering or puja. Noticing the beauty of the creatures that devour these offerings, she reflects how “Slowly I have learned to love that which is difficult to love, both in myself and in others.” Like Zen teachers describing the same mantras in unique ways, each chapter of Florencia Clifford’s book comes back to this lesson.