All in Feast

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.
I wanted to do it alone. I lit the candles in the kitchen and turned on some music. Today, this would be the way I talked to God, and what I wanted to talk about was my grandmothers, and the way I wanted to talk about them was by doing something with my hands that their hands had done time and again.
Even still, when I taste that particular gazpacho, I am rushed back to that day and that table. The cool, cucumbery freshness, the grassy bite of bell pepper, the distinct edge given by Tabasco and Worcestershire all combine to become a distinct place-marker in my mind. In fact, I recently made this picnic lunch for my sister and myself. As we each took our first bites of this cool and refreshing soup, I asked her what the taste made her think of, giving no hints or winks. The leaves on the trees rustled and shadows played on our quilt as she gave it some thought. “Painting the house that summer,” she said.

Why We Gather

Now, after so many years in Nashville, my journals and photograph albums are full of the stories of these gatherings. I’ve come to see them as part of the significant work of my life. I have no guarantee they will ultimately have the effect I want them to. But what I suspect, and what I hope, is that the scents, flavors, often-used recipes, family chitchat, friends catching up, and the familiar stamp of the way things are done will seep in, helping to create a family identity and leave a heritage of belonging.

The seating arrangement will be tricky, because some of these people are shy and will not be comfortable talking to strangers. They might feel uncertain about proper table manners or what to wear. They probably don’t get asked out much. But none of that matters. At this fantasy dinner party, every one of them will arrive with any fear in their hearts replaced with hope.
Americans have moved so far away from the process of butchering and a lot of us have sworn off eating meat due to health reasons, or for the sake of morality, that we can’t bear to trap the mice living in the couch or the spider making a web behind the toilet. Most of us are removed so far from the family farm and rural life that we have lost even secondhand experience of the cost of blood and butchering. If we buy meat at all, it is sealed in plastic and perched on a white tray with a diaper underneath to absorb offensive liquid.
We all contribute to dinner, and this tends to be my favorite part — us huddled in the kitchen to chop ingredients while talking over the week’s events. Often our time in the dining room lasts much of the evening, and this lingering always helps me to catch my breath. I’m consistently aware of how something as simple as laughter between good friends can melt away the stress of the day.

Celebrating 20 Years of Art House America

In late October and early November 2011 we celebrated Art House America’s twentieth anniversary. With three events — two in our home, the Art House, and one at The Village Chapel near downtown Nashville — we looked back over twenty years of Art House history; enjoyed amazing music, beautiful food, and the company of people from all eras of the Art House America story. Twenty years still seems quite extraordinary when we look back on our beginnings.

Small things. Sweet tea and warm cookies. An Americano, fresh and local. Simple gifts with a profoundly Eucharistic quality. They are the work of another person’s hands; acts of attentiveness in the creation of a personal and communal experience. Simple gifts, but rich and nourishing.
I had wanted a cast iron skillet for a while, partly because I’d tried several recipes lately calling for a heavy skillet, and partly out of an atavistic longing, perhaps to return to or recreate some home-and-hearth security from the past. I also wanted one for the ability to make a breakfast specialty of the cook I used to share a kitchen with, a puffed wonder of eggs, milk, and flour that our cookbook called a German pancake.
As I walked past the line of garbage cans that always posted sentry duty on Sunday nights, I scanned idly for any interesting abandonments — books or furniture whose owner had left them out for neighborhood salvagers to claim. I had learned in my last two years in New York that while the city might be stingy with space, its residents were a bit more laissez-faire with belongings they could no longer use. (In fact, I once heard a five-minute presentation on the best times of the month and neighborhoods to go looking for things.)

Nobody seems to know where the foolish word came from — a portmanteau of breakfast and lunch, obviously, but we don’t say lupper or dunch. Someone claims a reporter for the New York Morning Sun coined it in the early twentieth century as a way to describe the way a morning newspaper man ate: frenzied, I suppose, too busy to eat breakfast.

I gave up breakfast a long time ago, when I realized it just makes me hungry for lunch hours too early, but I think that portmanteau-inventing reporter and I, teaching college freshmen to wrangle words in the early mornings, are kindred souls.

Learning to Cook, and Why it Matters

Learning to cook has opened the door to a more flourishing life. Through cooking, I've learned to comfort, celebrate, care for the sick, create traditions, welcome loved ones and strangers, and create environments for relationships to grow. Cooking has a power that goes beyond meeting our basic need for food. Creating good food and welcoming tables speak to the deepest parts of our being. We are created to live artfully in daily life, to need real food to nourish our bodies, to have tables at which to belong, and to have stopping places where we can know and be known.

It’s exciting for me to see someone’s eyes light up at the first bite of a Texas blueberry sweeter than candy, especially when I was there when those blueberries were delivered in wooden crates by the farmer who grew them. It’s fulfilling to see parents and two kids riding their bikes home from our store with produce stuffed into the front baskets or a couple walking home each holding one side of their produce bin, swinging it between them as if it were a happy toddler.
More often these days I make an effort to contemplate, to participate in what comes to life in the kitchen. Scratch cooking and baking is somewhat counter-cultural and partly a spiritual exercise for me. It's my effort to deny fastness in order to slow down, appreciate, and taste the unfolding richness of what God has implanted in ordinary ingredients.
We have settled into winter here in Virginia. The salty white streets blend right into the chalky horizon. Cold cloaks our home and seeps in through the cracks. We’re expecting snow tonight. But fragrant on my stovetop is the scent of summertime. And if I close my eyes and stand in the warm steam rising from the pot, I can remember the sultry day when the children and I canned this soup. The laughter rang loudly that afternoon, and the tomatoes splattered all over the kitchen. Months gone now, yet still I find remnants stuck to the cabinets. And I smile. Canning food is a messy, measured, raucous process and I love it.
I grew up as the youngest of five boisterous kids, and liturgy was not a major part of our family culture. Church was formal, but relegated to Sunday mornings. Impulse was our modem operandi; ritual was the exception. These days, I maintain that improvisational lifestyle. I don’t have a daily commute. In fact, I don’t drive the same route twice if I can help it. (This used to make my husband crazy when he was first learning his way around Nashville.) A singer-songwriter by trade, I don’t even play the same set list two nights in a row. But in my mid-twenties, I took up the habit of afternoon tea.

Nurturing the Ties that Bind

A few years ago, I had a hankering to gather my grown children and grandchildren to our home for a meal. The busyness of all our lives, along with the frequent company of houseguests, makes time with just our family a rarity. In this particular season, I had my head most often in books and academic deadlines while I worked on a master's degree, so moving everything else aside for few days in order to pour myself into the elaborate creation of a meal was a true pleasure. Creativity in the kitchen was good medicine.