The Art of Cooking: Planning a Meal
A year or so back, I picked up what might just be the greatest guide to life ever written, naturally written by an ancient Chinese man who may or may not have actually existed. Yes, this is The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. You might not have too much use for the literal interpretations of his advice- or maybe you do- but I personally would much rather be attacking a meal than an army. Without further ado, here’s a bit of creatively-interpreted Taoist wisdom to feed your brain, and maybe your body, too.
“Therefore those who win every battle are not really skillful – those who render others’ armies helpless without fighting are the best of all.”
That’s an excerpt from Chapter 3 of The Art of War, “Planning a Siege”. If you had to pick a single line that really sums up Sun Tzu’s way of doing things, that might be it. The Art of War is all about solving problems before they ever really take shape, about having an intuitive understanding of the way the world works and using that understanding to effortlessly achieve the perfect result by acting at just the right time, in just the right way.
And if that ‘perfect result’ you’d like to ‘effortlessly achieve’ happens to be a delicious meal, well, here’s more from Sun Tzu.
“Therefore the superior militarist strikes while schemes are being laid.”
Now unless your hummus spends its spare time plotting against you, taking this nugget of wisdom at face value won’t help you much in preparing a meal. That said, there’s a lot to be said for acting to resolve a situation early, whether that’s a vulnerable enemy force just beginning to form a plan of action or any other problem beginning to propagate. Lots of Sun Tzu’s advice centers on addressing issues on their most fundamental level, before it ever really has the chance to take form and cause harm.
Say, for instance, you’re a college student just beginning to strike out on your own, with a few basic meals in your arsenal- sandwiches, scrambled eggs, bean dip, etc. Only now you are responsible for bringing shepherd’s pie to a potluck. You don’t know how this happened. You don’t know how to make shepherd’s pie. You only have the barest idea of what shepherd’s pie is. What do you do?
Well, if you are a superior militarist, you’d probably just let everyone know the minute you come to this realization that you cannot make shepherd’s pie, but would love to bring something else in its place. Address the problem early on, before it becomes a problem, while plans for who’s bringing what and where and when are still just that: plans. Poorly laid plans, if you’re my friends, but hey.
“The next best is to attack alliances.”
But maybe those plans are a little bit more solidified than you’d previously thought. The problem has taken root, and now you are responsible for making and bringing a dish that you do not know how to make. Luckily, Sun Tzu has guidance for this situation, too. The next best thing to addressing a problem before it forms, he says, is addressing it before it has the chance to cause real harm.
Maybe this means asking a friend to do you a favor. You might not know how to make the dish, but the only reason you’ve even heard of it before is because your buddy makes it all the time. Several hours later, your new best friend comes over with a casserole dish full of traditionally Irish goodness- the non-alcoholic kind- and your problem is solved. Not quite as good as just fixing the misunderstanding before it was set in stone, but almost as good.
Or, if you want to take Sun Tzu’s advice literally, you can decide that the real problem is actually the fact that there is a potluck taking place at all, and immediately attempt to bring it down from the inside.
“The next best is to attack the army.”
Only it turns out that your friend was famous for their chicken pot pie, which is not quite what you wanted. You are left with no option but to face the problem head on, sleeves rolled up and the least suspect recipe you could find on the front page of Google pulled up on your phone. This is the situation Sun Tzu was hoping you’d be able to avoid. At this point, there’s no way forward but to grit your teeth and face the problem at its level. It’s hard, it’s ugly, it’s messy, and there’s a real chance of failure.
For Sun Tzu, this means casualties on the field of battle, costing lives, resources, and morale. For you, it means showing up 30 minutes late, slightly burnt ground beef, and baby carrots that you probably ought to have thrown out yesterday. Whoops.
“The lowest is to attack a city. Siege of a city is only done as a last resort.”
You opened your fridge and found a slightly chilly tumbleweed. You are 15 minutes late already. Your life is in shambles. You wonder where your food went. You wonder where the afternoon went. Last- and most definitely least, in Sun Tzu’s book- we have a situation that is too big to be addressed. The enemy army has superior positon and superior numbers. The shepherd’s pie is an unattainable fantasy. You are forced to take maximum casualties for minimum results if you want to achieve anything at all.
You still show up 30 minutes late, but this time you are bringing a slightly empty bag of chips and an unopened container of store-bought hummus. Better luck next time.