Part of our coverage of the 30th Denver Film Festival
How to Cook Your Life is a documentary that mixes Zen philosophy with cooking. The main subject of the documentary is a man named Edward Espe Brown who wrote some of the “Tassajara” cookbooks that you may have heard of.
The film is made primarily from footage of a cooking retreat in which Brown teaches a class of eager older students about food, Buddhism, and life.
The movie is a joy to watch. It is competently shot, with great-looking closeups and cutaways. The music is a perfect complement — a light yet substantive jazz score. There is a nice rhythm to the editing that fits well with the slow-cooked dishes and the patient parables Brown uses to illustrate points.
Watching the movie is enjoyable enough, but it lacks long-term satisfaction. The old joke about Chinese food is that you need to eat again an hour after you finish your meal — this movie has that same effect. It’s a breeze to watch and just as unsubstantial. A few days after seeing the movie, I remember the pacing and the tone; but no advice, no lessons, and no insights.
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There are a times when Brown’s musings seem wrong. He too-easily dismisses the habits of “modern society” or “Western culture,” as though such things were homogenous and Wrong. These rants are illustrated with ugly burgers and ketchup-smothered fries from greasy-spoon diners — an easy visual target that oversimplifies the case in point. Brown attributes dining out to an aversion to cooking, when in my experience it has more to do with time constraints and taste preferences — my favorite dishes at my favorite restaurants are often better than anything I could make at home.
But all in all, Brown seems very down to earth. Coming across as very low-key, Brown nevertheless manages to magnetically attract the attention of the camera and the audience. He makes an excellent subject of a documentary.
The problem with How to Cook Your Life is that there isn’t enough of Brown in this movie. For the first third of the film, he is the central figure. But then we suddenly set out for San Francisco and find a small handful of other food/zen subjects who weigh in on stolen fruit, organic farming, and various other tangents. It’s not that these tangents aren’t interesting, rather, it’s that they are unrelated to the subject at hand; they feel like padding, and I was disappointed that they weren’t either worked in more seamlessly or left out entirely.
This movie will appeal to Buddhists, foodies, and especially those who share both passions. These two worlds bring out the flavor in each other when the subjects talk about organic farming, zero waste, the spirituality and rites associated with food, and about the hands-on and slow, deliberate nature of cooking for yourself.