My mother cooked dinner every night. Looking back, I don’t know how she put a hot meal on the table for all four of us without fail. It was never anything fancy — beefaroni or chili or chicken pie — but it was solid food that gave me a sense of home.
I stirred spaghetti sauce and learned to scramble eggs, but perhaps she preferred to work alone, or perhaps I never looked up from my book to ask if she needed help. I loved food, but I received it instead of participating in the process. This idea was repeated at church where, each week, the elders would hand my dad some bread, which he broke and handed to his family. There was no indication that I should do more than take and eat, no way for me to give back.
When I got married, I knew how to make about four things. I assumed I would cook dinner just as my mother had. After several nights of pasta, my new husband intervened.
In my mind, Mike and I learned to cook together. That’s the story I would like to tell, one that parallels the many ways we have grown up together after getting married at a young age. In reality, he knew more than I did, but he stood patiently next to me as I learned which vegetables are good for roasting and how to make a pie from scratch. We made things I had never eaten before: butternut squash and bread pudding and risotto.
When people asked about my relationship with Mike, one of the things I focused on was that we cooked together. Our rituals and relationship were centered around food. On Friday nights, we baked pizza from dough I had made earlier in the week. He instituted a no-soup rule between April and October. In the summer, we ate fried okra and fresh tomatoes. Just after Christmas, we would make and freeze chicken soup so it would be on hand throughout the cold days of January and February. We made chili and tater tots to watch the NCAA Final Four. I baked pumpkin muffins from my mom’s recipe for the start of fall. We learned how to make healthy choices, and we shopped at the farmers’ market every Saturday.
My ideas about passivity and participation were being challenged at church as well. I was asked to help as an usher and a Sunday School teacher, with Wednesday night dinners and, to my surprise, with Communion. I come from a faith tradition that has at its center a community breaking bread together, but I did not learn about giving and receiving in that process until I was an adult. I looked my fellow congregants in the eye and fed them with the bread and the cup. In turn, I was nourished by their responses.
When I got pregnant, we froze Mike’s famous lasagna and filled the freezer with chili to prepare. I daydreamed about the days when I would make cookies with my boy just like I had done with our neighbor, wanting to bring him into our sense of home. I couldn’t wait for our son to pull up a chair and help me in the kitchen.
But first, we had to get through babyhood. I had an idea that life would change after we became a family of three, but it was all I could do to feed the baby. Nursing and then pumping at work were soul-draining in physical ways, and I collapsed on the couch after work with no energy to think about dinner.
That is where Mike stepped in. I brought home my containers of pumped milk and he took care of everything else. He filled the bottles, came up with an organization system to freeze all the extra, and cleaned and packed the pump parts for me every morning. I provided the food for our son, but Mike handled the logistics.
Not only that, but he provided the food for me. He planned our meals and did the grocery shopping. He cooked while I nursed or pumped, and he cleaned the kitchen after each meal. My lunch was packed and in the fridge every morning. My travel mug was filled with coffee and ready on the counter so that all I had to do was walk out the door. Sometimes it was all I could do to walk out the door.
I thought I knew the importance of sharing food. I have taken food to new moms and seen my mom’s counter overflowing with casseroles after my dad died. I have experienced the common grace of bread and wine. But it wasn’t until my husband put a plate in front of my exhausted body every night that I truly understood how much he loved me. He nourished me until I was ready to survive. The closest I can come to describing it is that it felt like being protected in a womb just like I had protected my son for all those months.
When my son was learning to walk, he had the mechanics down before he was willing to trust that he could actually do it. Getting back in the kitchen was like that for me. As I grew stronger, I stuck with the habit I had developed of avoiding the kitchen and staying on the couch. I could not see a way out of this routine until, in a burst of honesty, Mike expressed his own exhaustion at how much of the kitchen duty was falling on him.
I started small, doing the dishes after dinner and unloading the dishwasher. After a couple of nights, I grew more confident, chopping vegetables for the Friday night pizza and taking over okra duty once again. As we cook together, it feels good to stand next to him like I used to. It feels good to feed my son again, this time in a different way. He peers in the oven and watches the biscuits turn brown, pushes the button on the coffee grinder, listens to the sound of sizzling bacon. Our rhythm is changing to accommodate our new way of life.
Most Sundays, we stand in a circle and pass the bread and wine from hand to hand. Take and eat, we say, each to the next. I have given my son my own body as food, and I have been fed by the hands of others. But during communion, we feed one another, and this feels right.
When we get home from church, I pull a chair up to the counter and teach my son how to stir the batter for pumpkin muffins. Later, I break one of the cooled muffins in half and share it with him. “Here you go, buddy!” is what I say. What I mean is: Take and eat.
Kari Baumann is a middle school librarian in North Carolina. She enjoys young adult literature, politics, and Connie Britton’s hair. She writes about seeing and being seen at www.throughaglass.net.