catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 20 :: 2004.12.03 — 2004.12.16


Meeting God in the kitchen

With the holiday season in full swing, kitchens across America are filling with the scents of apple cider, Christmas cookies, roast duck and cranberry sauce. The extra effort at the stove is a key ingredient in the creation of warm memories, familial bonds, and spiritual gratitude.

Why is food so powerful? Why does the taste of Dad’s barbecue or Mom’s lasagna fill us with a sense of contentment and connection? Why do we enjoy sharing our best foods when we invite people over?

I believe food is a language. It speaks in an elemental, earthy way, communicating messages between people we cannot express in words. It is a gift given to us by God to create community. A bagel shared with a stranger, a casserole brought to a neighbor, or Communion taken with a church often impress upon others our love and acceptance more deeply than any number of words. Traditional language can be used to obfuscate, deceive, and flatter, but the messages we send with food speak plainly of what is in our hearts.

In my experience, food delivers three elemental messages. While there are no exact English equivalents, the first might be expressed by such words as: Love. Generosity. Friendship. Acceptance. Community. Home. I think of the sweet tang of raspberries I used to pluck from my grandmother’s garden, the buttery crepes my family ate every New Year’s morning, the homemade guacamole my wife and I were served by a new friend. These are all memories of having belonged, being deemed worthwhile, of being free to be myself.

It’s not only the special foods but the everyday ones that carry the message into our hearts. It’s the day-in, day-out preparation of bologna-sandwich lunches. It’s the microwave popcorn in an unexpected care package. It comes with the spoon-feeding of a family member too sick to manage utensils. It arrives in the hours spent in the kitchen helping Mom measure ingredients. Such moments connect us and bond us, surprise us and move us. As a phrase, this message might be translated: “You are important to me.”

The second message sounds something like: Sustenance. Nourishment. Fulfillment. Provision. Abundance. It is the feeling of being made complete, of having plenty. As a child I did not understand this message—I hated being served healthy foods or having leftovers. Now that I cook for myself, “leftovers” is one of the most beautiful words I can imagine—to have food over and above what will satisfy me, to have enough for tomorrow. Nutrition is a very important part of choosing what foods to eat. I look back and see that my parents took care of my needs even when I didn’t know what they were.

This message of provision is somewhat dulled by modern society, where few of us toil in fields and pray for rain in order to fight off starvation. But the surge in popularity of organic and whole foods reveals our desire to be somehow connected to the earth that provides for us, to be aware of our need to cooperate with fellow citizens in order to be made full. As much as we want to believe we can provide for ourselves, that we are self-sufficient, we long to hear someone step up and say: “I will provide for you.”

The third message is similar to words like: Pleasure. Enjoyment. Satisfaction. Rapture. Gratification. It is felt in the bracing sting of coffee, the delicate flake of pastry, the satisfying warmth of soup. It awakens us to the reality of our physical self; it exercises the senses—we are alive. There is nothing a cook wants more than to bring such delight to others. At age twelve I created a menu of my own specialties and opened a “restaurant” for my family one night—just to take pride in the expressions of enjoyment on their lips.

Pleasure is not just about indulgent foods—it is devoting our presence and attention to food. It’s eating a carrot with all our senses: marveling at its vivid hue, feeling its stalky resilience between our teeth, listening to its satisfying crunch, savoring the robust flavor. When we give gifts of chocolates or wine, what we are really asking is for the recipients to take the time to savor something, to pause and take in the richness and fullness of life. We express the message: “I want you to enjoy yourself.”

These three messages—love, provision, and enjoyment—are the reasons food is such a powerful force in our society. Food is the acceptable way of saying emotionally powerful words: You are home. Take delight in this. I will nurture you. In Middle Eastern cultures, among others, peace is signaled not by a handshake but by sitting down to eat together; the meal says, “You are acceptable to me.” At the same time, when we use food improperly, no amount of vocal rhetoric can change the impression we give people. We signal exclusion and disrespect to the relative we never invite to dinner, to the homeless person starving on the street, or to the co-worker we sponge snacks from. Over time, the messages we send and receive through food can form the unspoken basis for our relationships.

I believe that God intended since the creation of the earth that we should communicate through food. I believe that he created us to be dependent on digestion—on needing to be filled again and again, to look outside of ourselves for sustenance—because that would draw us together. That would keep us seeking, searching, working, cooperating, bonding, loving. Without a need for food, the human experience would have been entirely different, something unrecognizable.

But ultimately, I believe the language of food was created not only for our relationships with each other, but for our relationship with God. The messages we speak to each other through food are just a pale reflection of the messages God speaks to us as the one who created us to eat and who sustains us through soil and sun and rain. He is reaching out to us today as He has since the beginning of time, articulating the nature of His relationship to us. Long before speaking through the burning bush, through the mouth of Jesus, or through the written word, God spoke His messages to us through the gift of food: “You are precious to me. I will provide for you. Enjoy what I’ve given you.”

These are the three things that were taken away from Adam and Eve when they sinned: love, sustenance, delight. They could no longer walk with the loving God. They had to toil to provide for themselves. The delight of bringing forth new life was mixed with pain.

These are also the three things that God restores to us through Jesus Christ: The love of God is now unimpeded. God has provided for us the way out of sin. We may enjoy an everlasting life with no more pain. “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

This is our right relationship with God. Embryonic in the very fabric of our world are the messages He wishes to speak to us. When we taste new dishes from around the world, when we find that rare fruit in season at the supermarket, we can hear God saying to us: Take delight in what I’ve created for you. When we have food to put on the table night after night, we can thank God for His provision and nourishment. When we prepare Grandma’s cookie recipe for children of our own, when we pass down heritage and tradition and a sense of belonging, we are sharing God’s message: You are loved. You have a home.

So as you gather around the dinner table and celebrate the season with eggnog and gingerbread, when you string together popcorn garlands, remember that you are creating more than fond memories. You are creating community. You are fostering peace, healing, and joy. You are opening space for God to speak His words to the world. May we have the ears to listen.

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