Relationships: What We Ate and Why It Matters

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During this last season, one thing I remember more clearly than anything else is what we ate. The undercurrent of our life was dark and ragged, but my senses remember so much beauty, too, possibly the soul’s way of finding balance or hope. All those flavors and textures and smells are still embedded in my memories, and that feels like a gift.

My brother’s memory works mostly in terms of cars. I’ll say, “Remember my friend Monica from college?” And he’ll say, “Yeah, red Nissan truck?” Monica hasn’t driven that truck for a decade, but now Todd knows who I’m talking about. It’s how my husband is with music: all of life linked to the soundtrack playing in his memory. And that’s how I am with food.

When I think about a weekend in Kansas City last summer, my first memory is a Z-Man sandwich from Oklahoma Joe’s, and the way the sun slanted across Kevin and Katie’s table as we ate foil-wrapped bundles of spicy meat and crispy French fried onions. When I think about Hollywood and my friend Laura, I think of bacon-wrapped dates from Cobras and Matadors and drinking peppery, plummy red wine out of tiny glasses.

And more than the food I’ve eaten in restaurants, I remember the food I’ve prepared with my own hands. I’m by no means a great cook, and I have a terrible habit of not using recipes. Sometimes my mother has to leave the kitchen when I’m cooking, because things get a little chaotic, and my lack of technique leaves a bit to be desired, but I really believe that every person should be able to feed themselves and the people they love. I think preparing food and feeding people brings nourishment not only to our bodies but to our spirits. Feeding people is a way of loving them, in the same way that feeding ourselves is a way of honoring our own createdness and fragility.

When we stop everything else to gather around the table and eat a meal made by someone’s hands, we honor our bodies and the God who created them. We honor the world He made and the beauty of creation. And in that moment we acknowledge that even though life is fast and frantic, we’re not machines and we do require nourishment, physically and otherwise.

We’re living in a funny time right now, when people build restaurant-grade kitchens in their homes, and if you walk into a specialty cooking store, it seems like you need sixteen gadgets and a graduate degree to make a meal. At the same time, other people live entirely on takeout, frozen food, and energy bars that don’t resemble anything close to food. I think there’s a middle ground worth finding between those two extremes, where we feed ourselves and the people we love with our hands and without a lot of tricks and fanfare.

I learned to cook largely because of our housechurch.

The rules were strict: when you’re hosting, you do everything: cooking, table-setting, dessert, clean up. But when it’s not your house, you don’t lift a finger. You show up and eat. Another rule: takeout is totally acceptable, as are experiments that might result in last-minute takeout anyway.

We know, after years of dinners, that Aaron eats gluten-free, Sarah doesn’t eat red meat or shrimp, and for that group you can never go wrong with Mexican food. We know that Andrew eats very very slowly and has an insatiable sweet tooth, Steve dislikes lots of things but is too polite to tell us, and Joe, more than anyone, appreciates any attempt at fancy plating, because although he’ll deny it, during one season in his life he watched a whole lot of Food Network.

For anyone who wants to overcome either a cooking or entertaining phobia, I recommend a weekly dinner gathering wholeheartedly. I think we happened into a truly beautiful system. Knowing that you have to cook for a bunch of people every few weeks keeps you in the rhythm, keeps the stakes pretty low, and keeps your eyes open for something yummy all the time.

When we began we were, admittedly, showing off. We made our best recipes, set our most lavish tables, hit after hit each week. But then after six or so rotations, we realized we were out of hits. We’d had Annette’s almond chicken and her enchiladas, Sarah’s calzones and chicken with queso fresca, and my lasagna, curry, and barbecue chicken chopped salad.

One of the best meals we ever had was Joe’s doing, and it involved a grilled fresh peach sauce over chicken and a sweet corn salad that was just fantastic.

After we played all our best cards, we had to start experimenting. And that’s really how you learn, by giving it a shot and taking risks and learning with your hands and your nose and your mouth. That season yielded some lovely experiments and some total disasters, and you need both along the way.

If I learned to cook in Grand Rapids, I love cooking most in South Haven. In the summers there, some days I feel like the farmer’s market is a whole cookbook waiting to be cooked — green beans blanched, tossed with marcona almonds, feta, and raspberries. Tomatoes with basil and salt and pepper and a really vinegar-y dressing. Baby greens with Dijon vinaigrette. Polenta with tomato sauce, mozzarella, black olives, and basil leaves. White freestone peaches grilled with ice cream and warm caramel sauce.

Summer tastes like big salads with arugula and feta and blueberries, the tang of the cheese balancing the sweetness of the berries. Sometimes we add chicken from the grill, or pears, or diced candied ginger or sweet corn or heirloom tomatoes, but always the peppery greens, the creamy bite of the cheese, and the rich blue summer-taste of blueberries, bought in a five-pound box at the farmer’s market, washed and left in the colander on the counter, to be eaten by the handful every time we walk by.

Many of the most deeply spiritual moments of my life haven’t happened just in my mind or in my soul. They happened while holding my son in the middle of the night, or watching the water break along the shore, or around my table, watching the people I love feel nourished in all sorts of ways.

From my vantage point, the idea that faith and meaning and all the other important things happen in your mind or soul where no one can see them is one of the worst by-products of modern Christianity.

We are, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, physical beings. And physical isn’t negative. If we didn’t have bodies, we couldn’t feel the sun on our faces or smell the earthy, mushroom-y rich smell of the ground right after the rain. If we didn’t have bodies, we couldn’t wrap our arms around the people we love or taste a perfect tomato right at the height of summer.

I’m so thankful to live in this physical, messy, blood-and-guts world. I don’t want to live in a world that’s all dry ideas and theorems. Food is one of the ways we acknowledge our humanity, our appetites, our need for nourishment. And so it may seem trivial or peripheral to some people, but to me, when I’m telling a story, the part about what we ate really does matter.

Excerpted with permission from Bittersweet: Thoughts On Change, Grace, And Learning The Hard Way by Shauna Niequist, copyright Shauna Niequist.

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Your Turn

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts… – Acts 2:46

Do you have memories of certain meals and the family or friends who surrounded the table? Some of my favorite moments have happened with dear friends and family sharing Jesus talk, or deep and real heart issues, with plenty of belly laughs around a table of delicious food and drinks. Those are the memories I cherish!  Community and food have long been intertwined in the Christian faith – what are your favorite traditions and memories? Come join the conversation!

Shauna Niequist

Shauna Niequist grew up in Barrington, Illinois, and then studied English and French literature at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. As an author and blogger, Shauna writes about the beautiful and broken moments of everyday life - friendship, family, faith, food, marriage, love, babies, books, celebration, heartache, and all the other things that shape us, delight us, and reveal to us the heart of God. Shauna is married to Aaron, who is a pianist and songwriter. Aaron is a worship leader at Willow Creek. Aaron and Shauna live outside Chicago with their sons, Henry and Mac.

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